Tag Archives: The Dispossessed

Ursula K. LeGuin: Tending the Roots of Change


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.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Work for Today’s World


Debbie says:

Events in the progressive world have changed since November 8. I spent the last few days in Eugene, Oregon, at the 2nd Annual James Tiptree Jr. Symposium. The results of the election were present everywhere:  in comments on the panels, in discussions in the halls, in the way everyone was so hungry  to see and hug old friends, to make real connections with new acquaintances. “How are you doing?” is a different question now than it was early last month. I hugged a friendly acquaintance and heard myself saying, “Can I just keep hugging you forever?” and she said “Yes!”

Photo by Joyce Scrivner
Photo by Joyce Scrivner

The Symposium is in Eugene, Oregon, where the University of Oregon houses one of the best feminist science fiction archives imaginable, including the papers of Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., Suzy McKee Charnas, and more. Last year, the symposium honored James Tiptree, Jr.; this year, the focus was Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Symposium was a fine celebration of Le Guin’s life and work — and then it was more. The first day hosted two panels (one by students in a feminist science fiction class) and a beautiful, very politically aware keynote by Karen Joy Fowler, who struck a note of moving away from centering the individual in plot and politics. Ursula Le Guin was there and participating from the audience, and we all had a thoroughly satisfying, thought-provoking day.

Read the Twitter Storify of Day 1.

Saturday brought an extraordinary sea change in the programming. The morning began with a panel in which three transgender academics and artists, in a panel organized brilliantly by Alexis Lothian, discussed The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin’s late-1960s novel exploring what happens on a planet largely without gender.

Tuesday Smillie, “art to think about how to move ahead, find ways, imagine futures when there is no clear path, no shadows to help us see,”
Aren Aizura, whose deeply embodied talk included “Structural change is up to us – and LeGuin’s book reminds me to put the care of bodies at the forefront of struggle and
micha cárdenas “”I worry that calling LEFT HAND trans feminist may continue the tradition making trans women invisible.”

All three panelists did an absolutely amazing job of simultaneously holding up the novel as a gift to them (and all of us) while critiquing the ways it fell and falls short of its stated purpose. In this process, they showed us their art, revealed their lives, and modeled the intersection of political rage, artistic integrity, and the ability to move past human failings.

Before we could all breathe after that, we were thrown into a panel (curated by Joan Haran), using Le Guin’s anarchist “ambiguous utopia,” The Dispossessed to talk about activism.

Grace Dillon, of the Inishinaabe people, gave us insight into her tribe’s open-hearted, communitarian  ways of making change. Inishinaabe communities are open to non-tribal people, and also include plant people and rock people (and not all rock people take the inanimate language construction).

adrienne maree brown, a Detroit activist and co-editor of Octavia’s Brood (with Walidah Imarisha) drew heartening connections between activism and joy, positing a world in which justice is associated with pleasure.

Both Dillon and brown continued Karen Joy Fowler’s theme of decentering the individual and honoring group action.

The afternoon of the second day featured two excellent, memorable presentations, one by Kelly Sue DeConnick and one by Brian Attebery. Nonetheless, the voices of the morning lifted the symposium experience out of “really really fine tribute to one of the world’s great writers” into “thoughtful, realistic, forward-looking grappling with the questions of today in the context of work by one of the world’s great writers.” The only disappointment was that Ursula Le Guin could only attend one day, and thus was not there to hear these presentations.

Read the Twitter Storify of Day 2.

Embodiment was a surprisingly (to me) recurring theme in both days of the symposium. A number of panelists and presenters noted how much Le Guin’s work is very grounded in the physical, and the geographic; perhaps that’s why it calls on the body more than other fiction.

The University is likely to post the audio transcripts in a month or so; I’ll put links here. Special thanks to Linda Long of the University of Oregon libraries, who did so much work putting the symposium together.