Novelists, as E.M. Forster noted, must tell stories about people. Some of the people in novels are ispoisguised as animals—Black Beauty, White Fang—but inside, where we hear and know them, they have human minds and souls; they’d be hard to write about and to read about if they didn’t. Science fiction also tells stories about beings who are not people: the populations of exoplanets, alien visitors, monsters of science or technology. Some are brilliantly conceived in their utter otherness—in a famous Arthur C. Clarke story, the alien is a vast conscious cloud of interstellar gas. But in many SF works the extraterrestrials are, odd traits aside, largely made like us, with minds like ours; they resemble the casts of characters that realist novelists deploy. The closer they come to the human, the less believable they are as aliens, and the more like figures from myth or fantasy.
In the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last month at the age of eighty-eight, planets circle suns other than ours, yet have landscapes and skies and seas not so unlike ours and natives who are mostly not very different from us. A single, tremendous idea made her imagined realms effectively strange, even while binding them all together as realms of the human. This is what she conceived: Some hundreds of thousands of terrestrial years ago, an advanced society on an Earth-like planet called Hain discovered the principle of near-light-speed travel, and with this advance they began to explore their galaxy. They sought planets where, whatever the differences from their home, beings like themselves could live and thrive, and there they planted colonies. Over the course of cosmic time, nine planets (among them our Earth, called Terra) were populated by Hainish people. Some of the populations are different in body and all different to some degree in culture; they come to have histories reaching back to time out of mind, and ways of doing and understanding things that are also ancient—but they are our own relations, brought and adapted to their worlds by our common ancestor. For every way we differ there is a way in which we are alike.
Le Guin’s parents were both famed ethnographers—her father, Alfred Kroeber, documented the life of Ishi, called “the last wild Indian in California”; her mother, Theodora, wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, a popular telling of his story. Le Guin became in her fiction not one ethnographer or historian but many. She deploys a force of investigators throughout the Hainish-populated parts of the galaxy to rediscover colonies founded millennia before, who observe and collect and draw conclusions that sometimes turn out to be inconsistent with one another—just as human ethnography and ethnographers do.
In her brief introduction to two recently published Library of America volumes of all the interconnected Hainish novels and stories written throughout her career, Le Guin is clear about her unsystematic system: “Irresponsible as a tourist, I wandered around in my universe forgetting what I’d said about it last time, and then trying to conceal discrepancies with implausibilities, or with silence. If, as some think, God is no longer speaking, maybe it’s because he looked at what he’d made and found himself unable to believe it.” Her galactic web, she says, “has always been more a convenience than a conception.”
This is false modesty, an endearing trait in a writer. Her immense system was certainly in place in her thought, and quite detailed, before she wrote the first Hainish novel, and is consistent through the series. Many commentaries and analyses can be found that will describe the Hain system of planets: which culture on which world circling which sun predates which others, how the planets lost contact with one another after a non-Hainish, non-human enemy, the Shing, invaded the Hainish worlds and divorced the populations from Hain. They become “planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god.” When, long afterward, the Shing are ousted, the Hainish are reestablished and greatly enlarged, now called the Ekumen, or (in a nod to the Greek meaning) the Whole Household of Man.
In science fiction, it’s the science-fiction inventions—the bodies, the tools, the cultures, the technologies—that must bear the meaning. It’s not so much that these things ground the characters as that the characters ground the things, and create the worlds that they (and the readers) experience. In the fourth and most celebrated of the Hainish novels, The Left Hand of Darkness, the science-fiction thing is in the bodies of the characters.
An agent of the planetary league, the Ekumen, comes to the nation of Karhide on a world colonized in the far past by Hainish explorers, then lost, now rediscovered. He is Genly Ai, a Terran. A preliminary study by observers who remained carefully off-planet has revealed a peculiar fact about this bitterly cold and snowbound world, called Winter or Gethen: the humans are androgynous. They have an estrus, like most earthly mammals, and each month when they come into the fertile period and mate, either with a longtime partner or almost anyone nearby, the furious hormonal activity will cause one to become male—producing or engorging the male genitals—and cause a corresponding inversion in the other, who will be female. There is no way to predict which partner will become which in any estrus. It’s apparent that the Hain deliberately undertook this biology experiment ages before, but not why. It has had vast consequences: on Winter there are no gender divisions, no male or female roles, there is no marriage, no shame about sex, no laws against sibling incest. Those in heat, or “kemmer,” can meet in communal houses and have one-time partners, but they can also “vow kemmering” with a single other; over time each may be a father and each a mother. Genly Ai keeps forgetting that the person he deals with, masterful, ruthless, or mild, is not male or female. The Terran investigators are baffled by this Hain experiment: Why did they do it?
Le Guin knows why, or at least knows why she did it. In a 1976 essay titled “Is Gender Necessary?” (included in the Appendix to Volume I), Le Guin describes how her first impulse was to write a book about a world that didn’t practice war: “If we were socially ambisexual, if men and women were completely and genuinely equal in their social roles, equal legally and economically, equal in freedom, in responsibility, and in self-esteem,” she writes, “then society would be a very different thing.” The androgyny of the Gethenians, their total asexuality most of the time, was the science-fiction thing that would produce that very different society and its meanings: men and women not just wholly equal but not men or women at all. The result would be a world that had its cruelties and injustices but never mass wars; war depends on men’s manliness.
In the essay, as in the book, she used the male pronoun to talk about Gethenians. It was, she felt, the best of several bad choices—inventing new pronouns, using female pronouns, he/she pronouns—but in notes she added in 1986 she took issue with her own essay, and argued that the masculine pronouns and other usages (“Mr.” as a general honorific, etc.) had made it inevitable that her characters would be seen as men—particularly the proud, strong leaders and able schemers who are her major characters. She had, in effect, undermined her own project. What she saw freshly in 1986 as having been possible but missed would of course be the first thing a writer with the same project in view today would seize on—genderless pronouns are available and widely accepted, and the invention of other even more inclusive ones would be expected, as would gender-queer aspects of Gethenian-style sex that Le Guin admits she’d elided. I understand that, and I’ve read some of the many recent SF tales that deal in radical gender transvaluation and extravagant sexual lability. But Le Guin’s account succeeds anyway, in its grave refusal of easy possibilities, in the care with which each consequence of the difference is brought to light, its impact on life, culture, and behavior in an environment believably drastic and unforgiving. If there is also a lesson about gender, or a questioning of masculinity, it’s left up to the reader to derive it.
The most moving scenes in the book, and perhaps the most moving in all the Hainish oeuvre, come when Genly Ai and Estraven, the only Gethenian who completely believes in his story and his Ekumen, flee across the great ice from their foes. They lie together in a tent as Estraven comes into kemmer. Genly Ai at last sees Estraven, who was male to him, as a woman, something he knew to be possible but didn’t feel before. He recognizes in that hour that what is between them is not simply comradeship rising from shared danger and labor but love. “It was from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. We left it at that.” Genly Ai’s growth in knowledge, of the Gethenian soul and of his own, is the plot of the book, though it’s not the plot the reader first follows.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a political novel as much or more than it is a novel about gender: that is, its central concerns are the politics of differing realms (one a monarchy/clan system, the other a ramifying bureaucracy) and the success or failure of a diplomatic mission seeking alliances. The Dispossessed (1974), subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia,” is a political novel in a different sense: one that directly reflects, in a story about an imaginary planetary system, the author’s world, its particular dilemmas and injustices. Not an allegory—that tiresome form—it’s the opposite: it’s our world, bent into a new shape, furnished with more of our stuff and circumstances than any other Hainish novel, trains and buses and ancient universities, physics textbooks and tabloid newspapers and cocktail parties, aquaculture labs, letters, shopping. The science-fiction thing that bears its meanings is simple astronomy.
A double planetary system circles the star Tau Ceti: the large Urras and the much smaller Anarres, its planet-sized moon. Urras is lush with forests and seas, filled with nations and cities and powered by high technologies; Anarres is habitable but nearly barren, its soil poor, its biomass limited to one species of tree, a few kinds of fish and plants, no birds or mammals. Hundreds of years before the novel begins an anarchist-separatist movement inspired by a woman named Odo—she combines the moral force of Mandela or Gandhi with the gnomic common sense of Kropotkin or Lao-tzu—made a deal with the Urrasti: she would cease her revolutionary activities if Anarres were granted to her followers as a home, a nation without laws, police, marriage, classes, sexism, money, religion. The book turns on two questions: Which world is the utopia? And who has been dispossessed?
There is something about elective utopian communities I find embarrassing, and more embarrassing when they are successful, or seem successful to their citizens or participants. Le Guin might too, given the real thought and effort she expends on this one, how she stacks the odds against an easy commonality; the work’s hard, necessary, and continuous, and the two great values—untrammeled personal freedom and social commitment to the welfare of all—are often subtly in conflict. (In the newly invented Odonian language, designed to stifle “propertarian” and “archist” values, work and play are the same word.) Odonians don’t practice austerity and abnegation for spiritual or moral reasons, but simply because they don’t have much, and sharing is vital to survival—which doesn’t mean that scarcity has no spiritual and moral consequences. Like everyone in a utopia, the Anarresti talk about their society all the time.
The Dispossessed, like many of the Hainish tales, is about a person who comes into a world he doesn’t know, who has a task to do if he can discover it. This journey, though, takes only a few days by ordinary rocket ship: the famed Annaresti theoretical physicist Shevek is coming from Anarres to Urras, the first returner since the founding of the community. The rich capitalist nation of I-Ao believes he can produce for them the foundations of FTL travel and the ansible—a device that will permit instantaneous communication at any distance. Shevek is overwhelmed by the beauty of the big planet—he hears birdsong for the first time—and only after living in the confusing luxury of a smug hierarchical society is he shocked to discover the masses of the oppressed, the source of Odo’s long-ago rebellion. On the run from his hosts he is caught in a general strike that’s like something out of an old leftist novel.
I thought, when I first read The Dispossessed, that it was admirable but not lovable in the way its fellows are. But as in other Le Guin novels, at the end Shevek, shaken in all his convictions, is taken up by powers beyond himself, and the book opens like a fan: Shevek finds asylum in the Terran embassy in a city of spires and steeples. We didn’t know there was a Terran embassy. The wise ambassador, a woman dark-skinned and hairless, as all Terrans are, views Urras as a paradise: her own planet long ago was made nearly uninhabitable by greed and willed ignorance. The wealthy of Urras are not grossly wealthy, she tells Shevek, and the poor mostly not desperate or exploited; and its achievements are vast. And in orbit around Urras is the watchful Hainish ship that brought the ambassador here. The two questions the book has pondered remain unanswered, but Shevek’s discoveries will go to the League of Worlds, and thus make the early stories of this volume, which all take place later, possible.
One element common to many SF stories written in the years when Le Guin was at work on the Hainish epic is missing from hers: with one exception, there are no violent conflicts between cultures or worlds, no alien invasions from Hainish planet to Hainish planet, almost no battles. A great swathe of Hainish history is colored by the galaxy-wide impact of the Shing—but even the Shing are mild as space-opera villains go. In the novel that describes them, City of Illusions (1964), we learn that they are committed to never killing any inhabitant of their subject worlds. They appear as Hainish, but the appearance is illusion, used to manipulate. Their worst trait is their ability to lie in telepathic mindspeech, which no mindspeaking human can do or detect.
Le Guin once admitted a bit ruefully that she was no good at villains. “Herds of Bad Guys are the death of a novel,” she writes in her introduction to City of Illusions. “Whether they’re labeled politically, racially, sexually, by creed, species, or whatever, they just don’t work. The Shing are the least convincing lot of people I ever wrote.” Actually I find the Shing very effective; they resemble the British Raj in their mix of ruthless control, certainty of superiority, and moral scruples. Where Le Guin would fail wasn’t with a race of alien shape-shifters but with a few human military men, in The Word for World is Forest (1972). In that novel Terrans, now in possession of NAFAL (“nearly as fast as light” travel), have taken over a forest planet where a small, peaceful people, the Athsheans, live, and with their huge military and mechanical power have begun to strip it of wood for export. (Terra has lost its forests, and much else.) The Terran overlords have enslaved the Athsheans—the military calls them “creechies” and intends to exterminate them. Much of the story is told from within the consciousness of a brutally macho and corrupt Terran commander. The book was written in 1968, when (as Le Guin says in her introduction to the novel) “it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of noncombatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man.’” Science fiction is particularly prone to the temptation of allegory, translating social facts or human evil or historical injustice into futures and creatures whose burden is obvious. She had, she writes,“succumbed, in part, to the lure of the pulpit.”
The majority of current SF and fantasy epics, and those as well that are set in what purports to be our present world, seem concerned not with lessons of any kind but with the pornography of power—Lenin’s who-whom, the zero-sum games of beheader beheaded, the cheater cheated, the usurper usurped. In this regard Le Guin has quoted, with a rather loving irony, an unlikely master: “There is nothing in all Freud’s writings that I like better than his assertion that artists’ work is motivated by the desire ‘to achieve honour, power, riches, fame, and the love of women.’ It is such a comforting, such a complete statement; it explains everything about the artist.”
Le Guin’s lifelong work was not about power but about balance: balance found and lost and found again. John Clute, a near-omniscient critic of the SF continuum, notes that Le Guin’s novels are largely informed by common oppositions, “darkness and light, root and branch, winter and summer, submission and arrogance, language and silence”—not as opposed forces but as twin parts of a whole in the Taoist sense, each deriving meaning from the other. Le Guin is a lifelong student of Taoism and has produced a version of Lao-tzu; brief extracts from the Tao appear in several stories and throughout the whole Hainish oeuvre. She creates in her novels communal societies governed by consensus yet not without conflict, simple yet sophisticated, almost as Taoist seals or icons; when they are disrupted, when a character departs on a forced or elective journey, the society heals but remains scarred. Balance is never permanent.
Readers in possession of these large volumes (2100 pages!) will find many further facets of the Hain mythology to explore. There are stories of planets that have no novels about them, like O, with its elaborated multiple-marriage customs and delicate Japanese affect (“Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” and “The Unchosen”), and stories of the cultures we know seen slant (“Coming of Age in Karhide,” with its title nod to Margaret Mead, much franker about the details of Gethenian sex than the novel is). Like the cloudscapes and the vivid weather of her planets, these stories are at once varied and constant; wise about the complex and sometimes fraught life within human and human-like and human-unalike persons; about love and labor, sex and possibility. About lasting peace and long-lived societies and the threats they face and manage, or fail to; about ancient once-generous empires that change but never die. It will be many centuries (apparently) before we here will be discovered in all our sins and all our errors, when careful and wise ambassadors arrive to return to us our knowledge that we also are part of the Whole Household of Man.