Ursula K. LeGuin: Tending the Roots of Change

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Laurie and Debbie say:

Ursula K. LeGuin died a week ago today;  the world heard about it a day later. In the last week, dozens of brilliant authors and commentators have written about her and her work. And we’re going to add to that stream of remembrances, in our own Body Impolitic fashion.

LeGuin’s work was extremely embodied; her characters live in their bodies, they move differently depending on how their bodies are shaped. They live in their environments. She was always interested in how the weather, the climate, and the natural world affect the people who live in it.

This may be most obvious in The Left Hand of Darkness, one of her most important novels. Left Hand is most often discussed in the context of its exploration of gender, and it also explores winter: how an entire planet swathed in deep winter most of the year would use its technology, how extreme cold and snow would affect politics, and warfare, and travel. In Left Hand, Le Guin imagines a world where heating, and electricity exist … but they aren’t used in homes, not even in the king’s home; they are just used in some forms of goods transport and manufacturing. Why? Because coping with winter is part of what makes the people of that planet what they are, and it never occurs to them to change that.

In The Dispossessed, another award-winning novel, she explores capitalism from the point of view of the inhabitants of an anarchist moon, populated by rebels who left the capitalist planet. Debbie is completely fascinated by the section of that book where the anarchist teenagers experiment with “jail,” and cluelessly end up torturing one of their own. From the same book, both of us remember this passage with extreme clarity:

The design of the furniture in the officers’ lounge, the smooth plastic curves into which stubborn wood and steel had been forced, the smoothness and delicacy of surfaces and textures: were these not also faintly, pervasively erotic? He knew himself well enough to be sure that a few days without Takver, even under great stress, should not get him so worked up that he felt a woman in every table top. Not unless the woman was really there.

She captures the way capitalism commodifies everything … and the way that commodification is essentially seductive — not in a nutshell, but a in table top. She uses that passage to illuminate our world in a different way, and also to clarify for the reader how different the anarchists’ world is, so different that they notice the woman in the table top, whom we are so socialized to expect that we’ve learned not to see her.

We could give endless other examples, much of them from later work. There is the story “Sur” in which a team of 19th-century women discover the South Pole. Very much informed by the experiences of the great Antarctic explorers, the story consists almost entirely of the physicality of struggle on the ice. But when the women get there, they leave it unmarked, because “some man longing to be first might come some day, and find it, and know what a fool he had been, and break his heart.” This decision reflects her (and our) understanding of how much easier it is to imagine women discovering the South Pole than it is to imagine women taking credit for their discovery.

There are the long pastoral passages in the Earthsea novels, about goat herding and living in villages. There are fishermen and servants and warriors and dancers–always, always, living in their bodies, living in their environments, never plopped down into someplace that didn’t shape them and that they don’t shape.

Perhaps because she was so very aware of her own surroundings, LeGuin had a very specific ability to sense when a particular change was just starting to happen in our world.  She would often find the first tendrils of that change, and tug on them until she wrote a story or a novel or a poem that amplified the tiny beginnings into something more visible, more defined. By doing that, made room for those readers who were feeling those early shifts but couldn’t articulate what was happening.  You see this in Left Hand with gender, in The Dispossessed with capitalism, in The Other Wind with aging, in her iconic short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” with the callousness of privilege.

We are really grateful that her books are there to reread, and for new readers to discover.

We will miss her.

Photo by Eileen Gunn.