Tag Archives: Ursula le Guin

better isn’t best, but

Sean Guynes drops his second of two essays on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. If it’s a book you know, or if it’s a book you simply know of, I recommend this piece wholeheartendly—and on that basis, the rest of Guynes’s Le Guin re-read to come at Tor.com. (And if you haven’t even heard of it, ehrmahgehrd get yourself a copy and fix that right away.)

I’m clipping this bit in particular, though, because it’s such an elegant and eloquent summary of an argument I’ve been pushing for more than half a decade, and intend to push for the rest of my forseeable:

If utopia can capture so much, including ideologies that are directly at war with one another, what matters then is how the utopian impulse—the always unfinished drive toward utopia—responds to the ambiguities inherent in the very idea of utopia. Why is an ambiguous utopia—in other words, any utopia—worthwhile if it won’t be perfect? I might be a smart-ass and say, well if you’re going to ask that, then ask yourself why anything is worthwhile. But to tamp down the snark and get real: Life sucks, why not (try to) make it better? Better isn’t best, but it sure beats this. Utopia isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.

Yes, exactly this. And now is a moment in which we need to remember and rehearse that attitude more than ever.

inside among the outsiders

Sean Guynes on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

… whereas most utopian novels before Le Guin sent an outsider into the utopian society, tracing their voyage through the social, economic, and political structures of the “better” worlds offered by Gilman’s Herland or Bellamy’s United States, Le Guin cut the narrative in half, shuffled the deck, and used Shevek’s awkward social positioning on Anarres and Urras alike to explore the meanings of her version of utopia from the inside out.

Cf. Moylan’s canonical paper on the critical utopia, of course.

This was a timely thing to read on my train-travels yesterday, however, coming as it did fairly close upon the heels of a paper discussing (among other things) the specific urban-planning conceptualisation of utopia, which is predominantly a question of the deployment of urban form as a metaphor for a hierarchised systems understanding of the city as body/machine/computer… and hence a top-down perspective by necessity.

As Guynes points out, Le Guin’s intervention into the utopian mode was to totally invert the usual top-down approach, not just at the level of form, but also at the level of narratology… and I retain a belief that this radical breach of Le Guin’s is far from exhausted, whether by fictions qua fictions or any other off-label uses of the same toolkit.

not oppositional, but negatory

An interview with M John Harrison by Jonathan Lethem, done earlier this year at Festival Internacional de Literatura de Buenos Aires; scroll down for the (original) version in English. (Hat-tip to the man himself for linking to it.)

I recall joking to a colleague a few years back that part of me wished Harrison wrote social theory rather than science fiction. The real joke being upon me, of course, in that he kind of always-already has been writing social theory:

The breaking of forms came later, out of a desire to test the limits and traumatise the reader’s assumptions about what a story is. I deliberately refused plot and closure. I bricolaged one genre or form on to another. I asked questions like: What would happen if I took the horror out of a horror story but left everything else in? I was concerned with doing damage to the foundational structures of fiction (causality, linearity, “character development”, etc), not to game them on behalf of fresh “twists”, or to toy with readerly expectations in the traditionally “experimental” ways. (Experimental Modernism is by now, after all, a genre of its own. It’s as old and over-developed as sci-fi, divided into easily-recognisable subgenres. There are rules to follow, textual markers to be laid down, easter eggs to be hidden for the knowing reader.)

[…]

People talk about science fiction as if it’s an end-product, an aim in itself. (In fact that’s almost a definition of the difference between genre SF and SF written from outside the genre: in the latter, “SFness” is a secondary product.) But for me SF isn’t a kind of content—it’s a vehicle, which on one day might be ideal for my purposes, and on another quite useless for them. I’m a writer: my voice and my concerns are what count, not that I write science fiction (or literary fiction or any other genre). I don’t, these days, make much of a distinction between genres. You choose one or another because it gives you the best chance to manage and present the themes of the story. Or, if one alone won’t do, you pick and mix. Every story an act of bricolage. Soon you find you have a voice of your own, and you want people to read for that, not for the nearest genre it resembles.

[…]

Personal agency is the great obsession of our day: the more you lack control over your life, the more you are likely to believe you’re in charge of it. Advertisers and ideologists are happy with that: they’re happy to mirror back to you to the sense that you are indeed the centre of the universe, the heroine of the story. If my characters come back from the heroic journey at all, they never come back bearing useful gifts–because I don’t believe anyone ever does. If people didn’t have Joseph Campbell’s artful wish-fulfilment fantasy to place them at the centre of events and keep them enchanted with their own reflection, they might dump their wish to be princess of all they survey, and instead channel their dissatisfactions into making a better world for everyone.

Of both academic and artistic interest to me here is the way that Harrison seems to be reaching toward the same rejection of the heroic that interested Le Guin… but rather than taking her path of showing non-heroic routes into futurity, he’s littering the supposedly heroic structures with trapdoors, deadfalls, monsters that turn out to have been mirrors. This is not a dystopian project, exactly, but it’s definitely not a critical utopia either… and this is why I’m not sure that KSR’s Greimas square of utopia is quite right. Because if the critical utopia occupies the bottom leftmost position (which KSR labels anti-anti-utopia), then there’s something useful and under-explored in the bottom rightmost position (which he labels anti-utopia).

I realise it’s more than a bit bold to call out Jameson’s most famous student for not using the Greimas square properly, and I really need to go back top the primary sources myself in order to truly get to grips with it. But if Felluga is not too far wrong in his reading, the Greimas square is exactly about transcending the simple oppositional binary of pro- and anti-; the lower positions are not opposites (not antis) of the upper, but (to quote Felluga quoting Jameson) “are the simple negatives of the two dominant terms, [which] include far more than either: thus ‘nonwhite’ includes more than ‘black,’ ‘nonmale’ more than ‘female'”.

So by that token, KSR’s square should instead read (clockwise from top left) as follows:

  • utopia
  • dystopia
  • not-utopia
  • not-dystopia

Seen this way, the critical utopia stays in position at bottom left (the not-dystopia — including, as suggested above, far more conceptually than the dystopia it negates). It feels to me, then, that Harrison’s writing occupies that bottom-right corner, the not-utopia — because the entire point is that it is conceptually far richer than the utopia it negates. Harrison’s not-utopias undermine the utopian precisely by exceeding it, by showing the tangle of unfinished infrastructures and unfinished buildings behind the fakeries and false promises of its glossy yet flimsy hoarding…

the bag contains no heroes

Siobhan Leddy at The Outline on one of the less-well-known but arguably most important bits of the Le Guinean oeuvre.

(Gonna excerpt fairly generously here, because this blog is my online commonplace book, and I learned about link-rot the hard way… but go read the whole thing for yourself, support online writers etc etc.)

“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” an essay Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. […]

Not only is the carrier bag theory plausible, it also does meaningful ideological work — shifting the way we look at humanity’s foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing. […] Le Guin’s carrier bag is, in addition to a story about early humans, a method for storytelling itself, meaning it’s also a method of history. But unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff. One thing is entangled with another, and with another.

[…]

The only problem is that a carrier bag story isn’t, at first glance, very exciting. […] As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account.

(This is what I was talking about here, and many times before — we lack a narratology that can handle systemic causalities.)

The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?

(I know, right? But nonetheless there is a market for novels that do exactly that, as KSR’s career indicates… )

The introduction of a singular hero, however, replicates a very specific and historical power relation. The pioneers and the saviors: likely male, likely white, almost certainly brimming with unearned confidence. The veneration of the hero reduces others into victims: those who must be rescued. […] The carrier bag story, with its lack of heroes, is a collective rather than individualist endeavor.

And on to the end with a mention of Saint Donna, still stayin’ with the trouble.

The future is not a static thing

Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living. She did not just believe that a society free of consumerism and incarceration, like Shevek’s homeworld, could exist; she explored how that society could be built and understood the process would be hard work, and probably on some level disappointing. The future is not a static thing; to its architects, it is always in motion, always mid-creation, never realized.

Sarah Jones at Dissent Magazine.