The 53-minute film Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, directed by Arwen Curry, has been available for occasional screenings in various cities for several months. The film aired last night on PBS’s American Masters series, and is available for free streaming here.
I had the opportunity to see a rough cut of the film in 2016, and a screening of the final version this past spring. I will be streaming the movie and watching it again this month, because I don’t feel like I really saw it the first time: so much of Le Guin’s history is bound up with my own life, and so many people (other than Le Guin herself) who were part of my life at one time or another are in the movie — and many of them are dead. So I watched the film, but much of my mind was wandering down various memory lanes, and I can’t really say much about it that’s coherent.
Ursula Le Guin was an absolutely fascinating human being, as well as being a brilliant writer of both fiction and nonfiction. I think the standard narrative is that Arwen Curry was lucky to get the opportunity to direct this movie and, while that is true, I think Le Guin was also lucky (or at least wise) to agree to give Curry the opportunity. The film’s fondness for Le Guin shows through in almost every frame. We would expect respect, admiration, and even delight — and we get all of those. But not every documentarian would have the skill and the wherewithal to show affection for her subject — and Curry does this while avoiding hero-worship, and maintaining a good film-maker’s distance.
At least based on what I took in the first two times, Le Guin comes through in this movie as complex, nuanced, occasionally sharp-tongued, and extraordinarily clear-sighted. Curry’s decision to portray some of the key books of Le Guin’s oeuvre with animations is daring, and I thought it worked.
When I watch it again, I’ll be watching for directorial choices and narrative decisions: I hope I’ll be able to separate myself from my own past enough to really do the film justice.
If you’re interested in — Le Guin, writing, science fiction, fantasy, academic families, the American west, natural landscapes, or, well, so many other things — check this out while you can.
Vonda Neel McIntyre died in her home in Seattle on Monday, April 1, 2019, of pancreatic cancer. Her official obituary and her New York Times obituary are excellent resources for the facts of her life and death.
Vonda’s writing deserves a great deal of attention and comment, as does her key role in early Star Trek canon creation. But we want to talk about knowing her as a friend. Both of us have separately stayed in her home, sat up with her late at night over a glass of wine, discussed life, the universe, and everything. Both of us are fans not just of the writing, and not just of the beaded sea creatures which decorate her home and the homes of so many people who knew her, but of Vonda the human being. Both of us are lonelier without her.
I remember staying with Vonda in Seattle and sitting with her in her living room talking until late at night over wine. We would talk about families, life complications and sometimes about our work: in my case, about my art; in hers, about the Book View Café press and the business of writing. And very occasionally about the writing itself.
I admired her work and the way she recast our concepts of how the world could work . She was one of the feminist science fiction writers that I most admired.
I loved her sea creatures; they were stunning and superbly original. They really looked like they could swim away. I have one swimming in the air in my living room. I created a world for them by making an undersea display for her with a fish tank in a window. Her creatures swam, hid in coral and just hung in their space. I loved doing it for her. Vonda always talked about the creatures as a hobby but it was an art form. I told her that on more than one occasion, but she never agreed with me.
I made a dreamsnake pendant for the Spokane Worldcon, where Vonda was a guest of honor. She was totally delighted with it when I gave it to her during a dinner we had the last night of the convention. I had planned to make a design from The Moon and the Sun for this year’s Wiscon, but every time I open the book, I’m too sad. It will wait until I can read and appreciate it. But it feels good to know that she would have been happy that I made it.
We didn’t see each other often but she had a real place in my life and I’ll miss her
What stands out for me about Vonda is that she was the single most considerate person I have ever known. Every single choice that she made took into account the comfort and convenience of the folks her choice might affect. She told me several times that she wanted to have “the best guest room in the city of Seattle,” and she would always ask “What could make it better? What could make you more comfortable?” And she would really want to know the answer.
She told me once that she had been shopping for a new car, and the salesman had suggested a car with a driver’s side air bag only. She was horrified. “What could be worse,” she said with a shudder, “than walking away from an accident where your passenger was killed?”
In 2013, when I thought I might be spending extended time in Seattle to be at another deathbed, I planned to stay not in Vonda’s perfect guest room, but in her equally perfect spare apartment downstairs. I can’t begin to express how much of a relief it was to know there was a place I could stay where I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way, where I could fix myself breakfast, be out all night if I needed to, and have the comfort of superb company available whenever Vonda was available. The story didn’t turn out that way, but the option was literally invaluable.
Just a few comments on the books:
Since we try to bring this blog back to the body when we can, it is crucial to celebrate Vonda for being the first person (perhaps anywhere ever) to write about contraception by biofeedback, in a culture where people are commonly taught and expected to be able to control their own body temperature to avoid or encourage conception. In Dreamsnake, she built this story through the lens of a man who is deeply ashamed of his inability to hold up his end of the social contract — and how he and the novel’s protagonist solve the problem together.
Ursula Le Guin and Vonda were the very best of friends. In Le Guin’s essay about Dreamsnake, she also notices Vonda’s kindness:
“Dreamsnake is written in a clear, quick-moving prose, with brief, lyrically intense landscape passages that take the reader straight into its half-familiar, half-strange desert world, and fine descriptions of the characters’ emotional states and moods and changes. And its generosity to those characters is quite unusual…
Yes, there is some wishful thinking in McIntyre’s book, but it is so thoroughly, thoughtfully worked out in terms of social and personal behavior that its demonstration of a permanent streak of kindness in human nature is convincing–and as far from sentimentality as it is from cynicism.”
We can’t think of a more fitting description of — not just Dreamsnake — but Vonda herself.