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Ursula Le Guin has died (nytimes.com)
1125 points by sampo 52 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 188 comments

I am not trying to say that I was happy, during those weeks of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter. I was hungry, overstrained, and often anxious, and it all got worse the longer it went on. I certainly wasn't happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognize at the time; I mean joy.

—The Left Hand Of Darkness

There's a lot in The Left Hand of Darkness, but the thing I got out of it is there are some things that can't be learned by being told the answer. I could tell you what the left hand of darkness is right now, but if you didn't read the book, you'd be none the wiser. Some things can only be taught through experiencing it yourself, or through the proxy of storytelling.

Storytelling is the greatest tool we have for passing down wisdom to the next generation. Ursula LeGuin, we celebrate what you have taught us and will continue to teach us, and we mourn your passing.

"nothing worth knowing can be taught" - Oscar Wilde

Very well put. Thank you

More than 40 years has passed since I read it, but I still remember that last part of the book, where he goes skiing down to the waiting guards. You know when you read the last sentence that it was the last sentence of the book, no need to turn another page.

I loved that book. I read it once and never forgot it. I immediately remembered what part of the book that quote was from even though it's been 20 years since I read it.

If you like Sci-Fi that likes to speculate on the nature of sex and gender, also check out Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis saga.

Butler's books made my skin crawl in the best possible way. I can't think of another author in SF who so thoroughly conveyed the feeling of rape to a man who'd never experienced it.

Her books were potent brews of control, acceptance, family, and love. I keep hoping Kindred will be made into a mini-series one day.

I'm from the 90's, partially. I hope your username is a reference to The Invisibles.

When I was deep into The Invisibles, I looked up "King Mob" and learned the character was likely inspired by the real-life radical group of the same name from 60s-70s London.[0]

0 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Mob]

Yep! Love that comic.

I always liked John Varley's take on those topics — in some of his short stories in particular (collected in The Persistence of Vision, The Barbie Murders, and Blue Champagne, amongst others).

"We ask the hospitality of the Domain."

Noise, buzz, confusion, alarm, welcome.

"We came over the Gobrin Ice."

More noise, more voices, questions; they crowded in on us.

"Will you look to my friend?"

I thought I had said it, but Estraven had.

-- [The Left Hand of Darkness], Ursula K. Le Guin

That book was awesome and mind expanding.

I first read “The Dispossessed” in a hospital delivery room while waiting for my first child to be born. The way Le Guin paints an entire life’s dreams and hopes and their external bounds left an indelible impression. There is a birth scene in the book that I remember with as much emotion as the actual birth the same night.

On a more general level, “The Dispossessed” is a good example of the paradigm shift that Le Guin (and some other writers of her generation) introduced to science fiction writing, because the book compares so directly to Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” written less than ten years earlier. Both are about experimental societies on a moon, but there’s a huge difference in approach.

Heinlein’s book is basically the last hurrah of the pulpy, swashbuckling post-war style of sci-fi novels. It’s an enormously entertaining book, but the characters have practically negative depth — they just do whatever the plot requires at any given point — and the future society is a charmingly naïve macho fantasy of a resourceless American West where nobody has anything, yet everybody behaves their best because that’s just what people do (and when a couple of black thugs show up, they get thrown out of the airlock — crime problem solved forever).

Although it’s easy to misread “The Dispossessed” as singing the praises of a particular style of anarchic communism, Le Guin avoids Heinlein’s stilted political prescriptiveness by focusing on people — they get mistreated by the system as often as they get lifted up by it. In the end she makes the explicit point that this is just one possible way of organizing human societies among a nearly infinite set of possibilities. Le Guin’s sci-fi is almost as soft as it gets, and the genre has been so much better for it.

> they get mistreated by the system as often as they get lifted up by it. In the end she makes the explicit point that this is just one possible way of organizing human societies among a nearly infinite set of possibilities

Well, the book is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia"

Which is fitting, given that Thomas More's original Utopia (as in the novel of that name) was also very much ambiguous (e.g. a lot of the features of More's utopia were things very much at odds with his rather pious catholic personal views).

Interesting — I don’t think my copy had that.

I have the Avon paperback from 1975 and on the cover it says: The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia – Winner of the Nebula Award!

I don't believe this phrase was a subtitle so much as part of the cover blurb. It's not mentioned again.

Wikipedia says 'When first published, the book included the tagline: "The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!" which was shortened by fans to "An ambiguous utopia" and adopted as a subtitle in certain editions', with footnotes that I haven't bothered to follow.

I started "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" last week. I closed it after two or three pages because I couldn't stand the computer speak.

There are a lot of classics with that same issue. Asimov's Foundation Series even has computer readers are just one line of a book at a time. And he thought this would cause people to not see their progress in the book and cause them not to read as much.

I just look past the details and for Foundation Series it is worth it. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" to me wasn't worth it, but I really liked "Starship Troopers" and think that is Heinlein's one book I recommend to everyone.

The only other Heinlein book I would recommend beside Starship Troopers (which everyone reads different than Heinlein intended I guess) is "Stranger in a Strange Land".

Don't think I've ever been as disappointed in the second half of a book as "Stranger in a Strange Land". Starts off with a very interesting high concept about the awkwardness of interacting with a human who has no idea of human values (as well as a solid stock plot about people trying to control him) and then rapidly turns said vulnerable, weird protagonist into a powerful free love cult-leader promoting all the very human preoccupations and social systems Heinlein happened to find intriguing at the time.

As for Starship Troopers, I think it's very clearly written and generally read as exactly the paean to military discipline Heinlein intended at the time (with Heinlein himself being the one who rowed back on the ideas in it having become more libertarian later in life)

He started out sharing profound insights into altruism and enlightenment... and proceeds to teleport everyone's clothes off for an orgy.

What a frightfully bizarre turn.

This is a problem with Heinlein's books in general. They tend to start off strong and then just get kind of bizarre in the second half.

Totally agreed. Friday was the first book of his I read, bought largely based on the cover when I was 15 :-). I prefer his short stories in general, though I've read Starship Troopers a few times.

I just finished Ringworld by Niven, and felt it had a similar problem, where the ending just kind of petered out. Maybe it is just the style back then?

The second half of the book is sort of a joke about how we impose a lot of restrictions on ourselves. "Martian logic" is to not do that. The wild ride is the punchline to the joke.

I wonder what story you think could better be told as the second half of the book. Should the alien become a conformist and live happily ever after as a librarian?

There is lots of scifi that trys to run with a concept, and runs out of runway. Stranger in a strange land is that kind of thing.

I remember a book - forgot the name about a ressurrection attempt of a dead female CEO with psychology. It really tryied, and failed miserably, as it got stuck in the swampf of pseudo science that is psychology.

I always assumed Heinlein was more socialist than a lot of people give him credit for, so in my own impressions of his books Strange Land seems the more honest/hopeful than many of his works (and also why the actions in that book cynically fail in the longer timeline). In that I also saw the dystopian elements of Moon is a Harsh Mistress, just below the surface, intentional commentary, and the ending a relatively mechano-socialist outcome... I realize that my impressions of Heinlein's canon are a strange minority view, but I find it interesting there are such differing views of his works.

Have you read any of Heinlein's essays/journals/non-fiction writings? I think they would probably disabuse you of the notion that he was a closet socialist.

I have read some, yes. He was a complicated person with complicated opinions and many decades to shift his worldviews. Early in life he was an open admirer of the Social Credit Party, the turn of last century Universal Basic Income party, so he was an open socialist for some years.

It's easy to chalk his early socialist inclinations as youthful vigor that maybe he regretted later in life, but that isn't the only way to read it. Despite what modern political in-fighting and team-formations may wish us to believe, socialist and libertarian are not mutually exclusive constructs (one is socioeconomic and the other sociopolitical, and there can be and is an intersection; UBI is very libertarian as an ideal/project). Up until the Red Scare and McCarthyism there were American socialists on both sides of the aisle. After the Red Scare there were still socialists on both sides of the aisle, but yes, most of them at that point were forced into the closet and out of mainstream discussion for many decades in the later part of the twentieth century.

I think you misreprepresent history. The people calling themselves "libertarian socialists" in the early part of the 20th century were not "on the other side of the aisle" exactly, they were almost all anti-capitalist. And if you're talking about the literal U.S. major political parties, there was not the "Republicans==conservative/right and Democrats==liberal/left" association then, what literal congressional "side of the aisle" did not have the left/right liberal/conservative association it does now, party politics were different. And "libertarian" didn't mean then what it does now in the U.S. either.

But yes, a variety of politics are possible, not just two, and Heinlein certainly had his own odd one, agreed.

In Starship Troopers, of course, everyone gets a kind of UBI I think, but only those who serve in the military have the political franchise. That was a fairly early work of his, and he definitely kept getting weirder from there.

I'm not totally sure what Heinlein intended from Starship Troopers, but my favorite reading is the movie, which I think definitely is _not_ what Heinlein intended, but I like better. The movie turns into parody what I think Heinlein took Very Very seriously.

My favourite living author is now my favourite dead author. It has been such a privilege to read her works.

Ursula Le Guin conjured new worlds and and lay them out before my mind's eye -- but that's not what made her special. Many writers have done that. What she could do -- almost uniquely -- was to conjure a new mind's eye. She understood that the world exists at the point of perception, so she built her worlds out of perception itself.

In her 1994 short story, "Solitude" (collected in "The Birthday of the World"), she tells the story of a culture whose world-view is virtually as opposite to my own as it is possible to be. And she made me believe it. To this day, I can feel the pull of that world-view. It's like being haunted by an alien soul. It's still not my world-view -- not remotely -- but being able to cohabitate with such a foreign consciousness feels... valuable. It gives me awareness that my own way of perception is just of many possible ways of perception -- not as a intellectual conceit, but as a visceral, lived understanding.

Thank you for this, Ursula. I am infinitely grateful.

Pretty big sci-fi reader and have never read her (to my shame), can you recommend where to start?

Her most well known sci-fi novels are probably the Left Hand of Darkness, Winter, and The Dispossessed. They are well summarized in the obituary. If you prefer fantasy, she wrote The Wizards of Earthsea series as well.

Le Guinn explores social and political questions overlooked by those who came before, and has had a profound impact on those who came after. The recent Hugo winner Ancillary Justice was heavily inspired by Winter, for instance.

Winter? That's not a novel of hers... do you mean the short story Winter's King?

Anyhow, the Left Hand of Darkness and the Dispossessed are great books. I actually didn't get into the Wizard of Earthsea for some reason, but this was probably a problem with my teenage brain; I need to go back and give it another chance. I'm also very partial to her short stories, with The Birthday of the World containing several of my favourites.

I was thinking of the Lathe of Heaven, sorry!

The wizard of EarthSea... That's why her name sounded so familiar!

I'd recommend The Lathe of Heaven. Short and extremely powerful.

"We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art."

Ursula Le Guin was an ardent socialist and it comes through in all her writing. I don't understand why the only comments and quotes about her politics are all downvoted in this thread. But I guess that's the average Hackernews reader for you...

EDIT: the quote is from a speech, which you can hear/see in this video:


Ursula K. Le Guin was an anarchist and Taoist not a socialist[0]; she translated the Tao Te Ching, after all[1]. She was anti-authoritarian, whether libertarian (remembering this term was hijacked), socialist or otherwise. She was pro collaboration.

The Dispossessed is an anarchist utopian novel.

"I'd put it this way: Dispossessed is an Anarchist utopian novel. Its ideas come from the Pacifist Anarchist tradition: Kropotkin, etc. So did some of the ideas of the so-called counterculture of the sixties and seventies."[2]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_K._Le_Guin#Anarchism_an...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_K._Le_Guin_bibliography...

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/feb/09/sciencefiction...

Margaret: You’ve perhaps coined one of my favorite one-line descriptions of what an anarchist is: “One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.” Would you describe yourself as an anarchist?

Ursula: I don’t, because I entirely lack the activist element, and so it seems phony or too easy. Like white people who say they are “part Cherokee.”

Margaret: I hope you don’t mind that a lot of us claim you, in approximately the same way that we claim Tolstoy. (Who I believe can be quoted as saying “The anarchists are right … in everything except their belief that anarchism can be reached through revolution” although I’ve only read this quote, and not his original essay.)

Ursula: Of course I don’t mind! I am touched and feel unworthy.

Margaret: What were your first interactions with anarchism?

Ursula: When I got the idea for The Dispossessed, the story I sketched out was all wrong, and I had to figure out what it really was about and what it needed. What it needed was first about a year of reading all the Utopias, and then another year or two of reading all the Anarchist writers. That was my main interaction with anarchism. I was lucky: that stuff was hard to come by in the Seventies — shadows of Sacco and Vanzetti! — but there was a very-far-left bookstore here in Portland, and if you got to know him he let you see his fine collection of all the old Anarchist writings, and some of the newer people like Bookchin too. So I got a good education.

I felt totally at home with (pacifist, not violent) anarchism, just as I always had with Taoism (they are related, at least by affinity.) It is the only mode of political thinking that I do feel at home with. It also links up more and more interestingly, these days, with behavioral biology and animal psychology (as Kropotkin knew it would.)


She also warns how socialism can be easily turned into the power of the few. See The Dispossessed.

Any system can be easily turned into the power of the few. Socialists have warned about that pretty much from the start. Marx warned against reactionary and outright feudal forms of socialism in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, and the argument over the dangers of authority split the First International as early as 1872 when the anarchists around Bakunin thought Marx too was too authoritarian for their liking. Later you had people like Rosa Luxembourg sharply criticizing the Bolsheviks, and the many thousands of Russian socialists and communists that laid down their lives to fight the Bolsheviks even before it became clear just how authoritarian they were to become.

The authority vs. anarchy axis is largely separate from the economic system - a number of socialist ideologies have as their explicit goal the destruction of hierarchy and government, and a further number of left libertarian ideologies share right libertarian goals in terms of minimizing the power of government, and others want to use state power to bring about redistribution or fail by bringing in systems that makes abuse too easy (e.g. Leninist party theory is pretty much begging for power hungry people to abuse it), just as you have anything from absolutist monarchists and fascists to right libertarians on the right wing.

No, she warns about the creation of hierarchies even in a purely anarchist society.

Hierarchies are necessary for complex systems to function. The way that it is used as a boogeyword by ideologues is exhausting.

What anarchists are really worried about is "nonconsensual hierarchies". They are definitely necessary sometimes and people will often choose to participate in a hierarchy when they see its usefulness. Anarchists have done this a lot historically, like in the Spanish civil war, there were military hierarchies among the anarchists.

The problem in most societies is that a lot of the hierarchies, particularly the very important ones for survival and day to day life, are completely forced upon us.

I'm not sure why this comment was downvoted. I read it as a valid criticism of anti-state discourse. While I'm amenable to quite a bit of left-libertarian philosophy/ideology, I agree from lived experience that hard problems require complex systems to solve them EVEN IF the solutions themselves are simple!

True, but not hierarchies of control over people's lives.

So you don't believe in the legal system?

No idea why you are being down-voted. Le Guin absolutely spoke of authoritarian socialism. These things are obviously not mutually exclusive.

I have also found that socialist positions get downvoted here. I'd recommend that people read the works of socialists (Marx, Rosa, etc.) because most of my negative associates came from liberal insinuation I received growing up in the US :) The very word has had a campaign against it for a long time because of the 20th century relations between America and Russia (which, btw, hasn't been anything remotely socialist in a very very long time.)

> The very word has had a campaign against it for a long time because of the 20th century relations between America and Russia

It might also have something to do with the roughly 85-100 million people whose deaths can be directly attributed to policies enacted in support of socialist utopia during the 20th century. Advocates of socialism like to say that they're anarchist, or that they're anti-authoritarian; but enacting socialism inherently requires authoritarian measures, because it is so rarely the will of competent people to receive as little as incompetents. In cases such as the red terror, competence and success are explicitly terrorized and destroyed in service of the goal.

Socialism is authoritarian because at least one person, myself, is unwilling to have his tools and life work taken from him, and given to a fool who will squander them just as that fool squandered the opportunity to attain them.

Socialism is about improving the lot of workers, and ordinary people and giving them more power, for instance saying that workers should own the factories together, make their own decisions democratically, rather than take orders from a boss. In that respect the USSR has very little to do with socialism, more resembling state capitalism. See Chomsky: The Soviet Union vs Socialism.


yes. the person you're responding to is getting caught up in a very narrow style of authoritarian communism which honestly i can understand being repulsed by! But, as i was saying in the original comment: hundreds of years of work has been done by thousands of scholars and activists to develop marxist theories. the person you're responding to paints leftists as a bloc, all trying to accomplish the same thing! If only!

>at least one person, myself, is unwilling to have his tools and life work taken from him, and given to a fool who will squander them just as that fool squandered the opportunity to attain them.

Unless, of course, if that person is named "Boss".

And yet there seems to be a fair amount of support here for guaranteed basic income / guaranteed employment.

As the other commenter said: it's a capitalist solution. But as well I find that the concerted effort to paint the word 'socialism' as a bad thing implicitly in america is exactly why the effect you observe happens. I think, from talking at length with lots of people from various places, background, and of various identities that americans are pretty amenable to socialist policy we just have some cultural peculiarities that make it hard to talk about.

This is why bernie's platform vs trump's platform get more and more interesting to me as the majority continues to rebel against _how_ trump governs. It shows me that people really do want a progressive populist but there are a lot of bizarre little artifacts in our culture that keeps them from accepting certain concepts at face value. I guess what I'm saying is that socialism needs rebrand AND people need to be encouraged to discover the rich American history of socialism from the union workers in Appalachia that were attacked by our government for striking, to harriet tubman, mlk, and eugene debs.

Basic income is a capitalist solution - a patch to keep the whole thing going. It has long been supported by people on the economic right (e.g. Milton Friedman's negative income tax).

We will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.

― Ursula K. Le Guin, accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards

“A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skillful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well – this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection and of sociability as a whole.” -- The Dispossessed

Over the years I've done a fair amount of good work as a programmer. These days, I get as much joy as I ever got programming by cooking some vegetable soup and sharing it with friends. (And it's cheap: $10 makes about 2 gallons [~7 liters]).

It's remarkably true and something I relate to. Some of the smallest but most satisfying experiences I have are hauling heavy rocks up a riverbank to build a fire pit and chopping firewood after walking miles to find the right spot to camp. It was menial and tiring but damn was it satisfying and did it make me feel good to have done it.

Those words are so beautiful!

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel... is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin

The introduction to one of the versions of Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favorite texts about Science Fiction: http://theliterarylink.com/leguinintro.html

I almost always skip the intro of books like this. I didn't skip this one. The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness are two of my favorite books of all time.

Anyone remember the source of the essay about the town where everyone was happy, and how it feels unbelievable until you find it has a horrible secret, which somehow makes it more believable? I think that is her writing.

That is a short story called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas"

Yes, a story that has haunted me ever since I read it.


The EarthSea Trilogy has stuck with me too.

Earthsea was a trilogy from '72 to '90, but it's now five novels and a bunch of short stories. They're all good.

I think I have it in "The Winds 12 Quarters"

Salem O backwards

"People ask me 'Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?' From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?"

It's "the ones who walk away from Omelas".

Short read and available online:https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf

It's basically taken almost verbatim from a dialogue between two characters in The Brothers Karamazov. She later said she didn't remember the dialogue at the time but it was stuck in the back of her head and was definitely an influence.

The core idea is the same, but "almost verbatim" is a gross misrepresentation.

Great artists steal.

That story always makes me question what decision I will make if in a similar situation.

After reading the story I immediately thought that the point was that most of us live in Omelas. I don't think I have it in me to walk away.

I wondered the same thing.

But then I wondered "Why did they walk away? Why not comfort the child and end it?"

In the story she says a single kind word to the child would end it. I can understand living there, but I don't understand walking away.

By walking away you are not helping the child. So what does it matter that you are not benefiting?

To help the child and end it means to deprive many others of happiness as well. It is also likely to be wasted, as she writes in the story, the kid may be so far gone beyond consolation.

It is one of mine as well, but I could not remember the source for it, thank you.

The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

I'm not usually affected by authors passing away but damn this stings a little. One of my favourite authors.

It's such a fine last paragraph it's worth quoting in full:

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

She started blogging[1] at 81. This is an interview with her, around the time of the publication of her book which came out of that.

She will be missed.

[1] https://newrepublic.com/article/144719/happens-science-ficti...

Every time I've read an Ursula Le Guin book, it's changed the course of my life. Both fiction and non-fiction. Her writing always felt like it could weave between all the complications of life to get at the Truth of things.

Loved those books.

"If you can see a thing whole, it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives. . . . But close up, a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you loose the pattern."

--The Dispossessed

Incredible author. R.I.P.

The dispossessed. Changed my life. RIP Ursula. You will be missed

I've read most of her books but The Dispossessed was the one that had the greatest influence on me from a philosophical standpoint. Such a great book!

Changed me as a person too.

I add it to my list, thanks!

She was a fantastic author. I read her earthsea books as a child and I read much of her adult fiction later on. She has always remained one of my favorite authors. However, it seems that she had a long life that was good so I can't be too upset.

I read Earthsea as a ten-year-old, and I loved it. Then I re-read it as a thirty-year-old... and I loved it, though I understood it far better. Ursula Le Guin was one of the true greats, and the world will be worse off without her.

I read A Wizard of Earthsea around age 12... it opened the world of fantasy/sci-fi. Sad for her passing and reminded that I always wanted to read more of her books... RIP.

It was 12 and 27 for me. I can't wait to read these to my kids as they grow up. So many lessons within.

Coincidentally, I purchased the Earthsea series for my son a few days ago, who I think is the right age.

I also read some of her work from the 1990s, a short story collection whose name I cannot recall, but was very powerful and thoughtful. I think in many respects she was able to take science fiction and fantasy in emotional and social realms where few authors were willing to tread.

My parents read them to me when I was seven. Etched in my memory. I've been back to read them a few times since and always found more to enjoy.

    Only in silence the word,
    only in dark the light,
    only in dying life:
    bright the hawk's flight
    on the empty sky.

RIP. The Dispossessed is one of my favorite books.

I enjoyed reading The Dispossessed, though I have also been known to characterize it as, "A Sci-Fi universe where communism actually works, hence the 'Fi' part." However, I've recently read Thomas Sowell's book about the original formulation of Marxian economics and philosophy, and I've come to the conclusion that the technology of the late 21st century might possibly enable a viable communal society through the replacement of the distributed optimization of the market with AI, as Ursula K. LeGuin presaged in The Dispossessed.

But the whole point of the novel is that neither system really works very well! I think you're doing it a disservice to characterize it in that way.

She did her best to imagine a communist system that was nearly ideally designed and it still fails in so many ways.

Ursula Le Guin was a supporter of libertarian socialist ideals, which are opposed to both capitalist and centralised/authoritarian socialist ideologies. She was a big fan of Murray Bookchin, who came from an anarchist background and founded the ideas of "communalism" and libertarian municipalism.

> neither system

People often miss it, but the planet Urras has many countries and actually two superpowers: A-Io (conservative capitalist parliamentary democracy) but also Thu (a totalitarian socialist regime). A very cold war like setting.

A-Io allowed the Odonian rebels (anarchists) to exile to the moon, but their counterparts in Thu we never hear much about. Possibly their fate was more gruesome.

There should be a sequel where there is a Project where A-Io gives rise to a successor society A-Jo, which doesn't work out, but then gives rise to another successor using the same iterative naming scheme. Then that successor should then switch to a successor naming scheme advancing only the 1st letter, and the whole story series should be directed by Katsuhiko Nishijima.

For this terrible pun, I am sending Akagiyama missiles your way.

> She did her best to imagine a communist system that was nearly ideally designed and it still fails in so many ways.

It wasn't a communist system, but an anarchist one. And it didn't fail in so many ways, it's just that life in Anarres was tough. A barren moon with few natural resources. They even had bad harvests and people starved to death.

A communist system is an anarchist one. The main split between communists and anarchists is over the means of getting there, not over the end-goal; Bakunin and Marx split the First International over differences over how to use or destroy the state, not over the society they wanted in the end.

But the whole point of the novel is that neither system really works very well! I think you're doing it a disservice to characterize it in that way.

Given the tremendous increase in the standard of living of so many people, Capitalism does a pretty darn good job. I think in that by grouping it in a pair where "neither system really works very well," you and LeGuin would be "doing it a disservice to characterize it in that way."

One major weakness of Capitalism, due in part to Pareto, is the perception of relative disparity. Psychological research indicates that such perception is a basic reality of the human condition. We should regard the bitterness of have-nots as real, even if the have-nots are fabulously well off in a global and historical sense. Any system which is forward thinking should take that into account, or fail to do so at its own peril. (One of Basic Income's biggest problems is that it does nothing to alleviate the problems relative disparity, so plants the seeds for its own political instability.)

She did her best to imagine a communist system that was nearly ideally designed and it still fails in so many ways.

Any system which isn't perfect is going to fail in innumerable ways, in that countless instances of terrible tragedy and injustice will exist within it, and no system is going to be perfect.

Re: Your user name: I once came up with an acronym for a sensor-network Internet thing. BACON: Basic Autarchic Communication/Observation Network.

> Given the tremendous increase in the standard of living of so many people, Capitalism does a pretty darn good job. I think in that by grouping it in a pair where "neither system really works very well," you and LeGuin would be "doing it a disservice to characterize it in that way."

It worth noting that Marx was tremendously excited about capitalism: The first part of the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto contains a lot of praise to capitalism - some barbed, some delivered straight. For example:

> The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.


> The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

Socialism was conceived in it's modern form as a direct result of optimism over the rapid growth in productivity brought about by capitalism, and Marx shared that view: He saw capitalism as both absolutely necessary to bring the material wealth that could make redistribution possible, as well as the eventual catalyst for socialist revolution (and in doing so repeatedly warned against trying to push or socialism in poor underdeveloped countries other than as part of a larger wave of revolutions). He also praised capitalism for doing away with a lot of other outmoded aspects of society: to him it was the best so far, and a tremendous step forward for humanity.

The idea that wanting socialism necessarily means thinking capitalism is awful needs to die. But neither is there any reason to think that socialism in any form will be perfect either, even if you want socialism. Any given system can have flawed implementations, or outright fail. Marx himself as early as 1845 (in The German Ideology) warned, for example, that socialist revolutions somewhere underdeveloped would be doomed to failure: If you redistribute somewhere where redistribution just makes want common, he said, the old class struggles would just reassert themselves. Anyone who seriously cares about any given system needs to be open to considering how and why it might fail if they want to make it a success.

As such, Le Guin stands with people like George Orwell in an important but small tradition of socialist literary writers open to showing the dangers too.

Oh, I think it's pretty obvious which system portrayed in the book anyone sane would prefer to live as part of. They aren't portrayed as equally "not working very well", no?

If some people read the book preferring Urras or thinking it's a toss-up, I'd find that curious and be interested in hearing more (do you?), but still doubt that's what Le Guin intended.

Iain M. Bank's Culture is perhaps my favourite example of a "working" communist society - but it does rely on "magic" technology, engineering of its inhabitants to be nicer and ultimately on god-like AIs to actually run things. Most humans in the stories are effectively pets of the AIs - pets who are very well looked after, and who can leave the Culture if they want (which the vast majority don't - of course) but where they don't really matter.

Edit: Personally I would sign up in an instant.

I seem to remember an interview where Banks described the Culture as "anarchism within, socialism without," but yes, it very much depends on being post-scarcity and transhumanist. I wonder what Banks would have made of "Meditations on Moloch"? I could see the Culture's progenitors using something like that as their manifesto.

We didn’t really learn much about the communists in the Dispossessed. Most of the novel is about the anarchists.

Anarchists generally get along with communists even worse than capitalists do, so I don’t think this distinction is just pedantry.

As the linked article mentions, The Dispossessed was inspired by the works of Peter Kropotkin, the prominent anarcho-communist.

I missed that in the article, thanks! Indeed the anarchism on display in the Dispossessed was very collectivist, I hadn’t realized how directly it was based on Kropotkin.

My experience of anarchists is such that I happily group most anarchists together, and place them ideologically far, far away from Stalinists.

Are you thinking Kropotkin’s ideals are close enough to communism that I shouldn’t belabor the distinction?

Plenty of communists are far closer to anarchists than to the Stalinists, and historically plenty of people have applied both labels to themselves.

E.g. the founder of (left)-libertarianism was an anarcho-communist (Joseph Déjacque) [1], and among early libertarian socialists, you for example would fine some the earliest leading figures in the Socialist League, which counted Eleanor Marx and Friedrich Engels among their members.

> I missed that in the article, thanks! Indeed the anarchism on display in the Dispossessed was very collectivist, I hadn’t realized how directly it was based on Kropotkin.

I find that a very curious statement. Kropotkin explicitly criticized the collectivist nature of the anarchism of Proudhon and Bakunin as simply being a different type of wage system that he believed would eventually lead to centralization again, and promoted local self-sufficiency etc. as means to explicitly counter collectivism. Here's an interesting overview of the history of anarchist communism (or communist anarchism) [2] that covers both Kroptkin and Dejacques.

Anarchist-communism is specifically in opposition to collectivist tendencies in many anarchist ideologies, and explicitly rejecting anarchist systems that are based on exchange of value or other ways of letting some party assert authority over another's access to goods, just like Marx (e.g. based on Marx mentions in Critique of the Gotha Programme, for example, that set out "higher" forms of socialism as doing away with means of exchange).

[1] This is the first use of the term libertarian in a political sense: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/joseph-dejacque-on-t...

[2] http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alain-pengam-anarchis...

You’re right, of course. I didn’t mean collectivist, at 11pm I got my anarchist terms-of-art confused.

Anarchism is a subset of communism. In the 20th century, for obvious reasons, both the Soviet and American propaganda machines sought to associate "communism" with authoritarian collectivism, when in reality it's a much wider umbrella.

> A Sci-Fi universe where communism actually works

What about Star Trek?

In the case of Star Trek, there were many more items of Fi. Then you have Star Wars which really doesn't give a ####.

>Then you have Star Wars which really doesn't give a ####.

Star Trek just pretends to, though. Most of its fictional conceits are barely thought out, including its post-scarcity communist utopia.

Does the Force really make any less sense than Q? It's all space fantasy.

Most of classical Star Trek (TOS, TNG, Voyager, and large parts of DS9) consists mostly of self-contained morality plays where the sci-fi just provides a setting. Some of those morality plays are related to the science part - notably a lot of the issues around the morality of treatment of Data and holograms. But most of it could be set in any time period. The Sci-Fi setting just made it easier to juxtapose things without running into "but that's not how it was then/there" objections and allowing more extreme contrasts.

Enterprise, parts of DS9, Discovery and the new movies have largely done away with that format. It's a very sharp relief.

Does PsychoHistory and "The Mule" make any more sense than The Force? In the end, it is all space opry. Our far flung mind children are likely to be stranger than the mind of Homo sapiens is able to imagine.

Psychohistory makes sense as a sort of statistical sociology. Probabilities of society as a whole moving in this or that general direction.

There are few books that have a single sentence or two that change you utterly. The Dispossessed has that for me.

me too. when talking about the prison odo was held in, she describes it as sitting there as if to say, "i've been here for a long time, and i'm still here."

when i read that first i had to put the book away and walk around a minute.

What were the sentences?

The book also had a big effect on me.

Took me a while to find one near the very end, where Ketho, a Hainishman, member of the oldest sentient race in the universe, decided to risk his life with Shevefc on his return to Anarres:

"[Ketho] looked at him gravely, as if he was not sure what happiness was, and yet recognized or perhaps remembered it from afar. He stood beside Shevefc as if there was something he wanted to ask him. But he did not ask it “It will be early morning at Anarres Port,” he said at last, and took his leave, to get his things and meet Shevek at the launch port."

Likewise. Frankly I didn't enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness when I read it, but I think about The Dispossessed all the time.

> [...], I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river.

When I read that, I thought of Amazon (book selling river) but wasn't sure if 'sold down the river' was some idiom. Searching for it brought me to:

> journalist Lee Sandlin said "the threat of being 'sold down the river' was seen as tantamount to a death sentence." [1]

What an impressive choice of words!

[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/01/27/265421504...

The book that changed me most of all books is possibly "The Dispossessed".

But he had not brought anything. His hands were empty, as they had always been.

I've always been interested in Le Guin, but never read much, outside of an Earthsea book or two as a child.

From the contents of the thread I seem to be gathering The Dispossessed might be the best place to start. Is this correct?

Are there any other must reads?

The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness are seminal works. As you've gathered from this thread, The Dispossessed can be understood as a critique of capitalism. It is not uncritical of the alternatives. Likewise, the Left Hand of Darkness can be understood as a feminist critique of patriarchy, but it isn't uncritical of feminist ideology. On a deeper level, both novels are nuanced ruminations on society and human nature.

I'd like to add The Lathe of Heaven to those two.

Try "The Birthday of the World". Bite-sized short stories that are utterly indelible. Will make you hungry for her longer works.

I second this request.

I have read A Wizard of Earthsea recently — because of its status as an archetype of fantasy writing — but (perhaps not surprisingly considering its intended younger audience) it seemed to me a bit dry and descriptive in its prose. I gather that her more adult-oriented works are different?

was it intended for a younger audience?

her sequels are more reflective. you might like them more.

I just finished re-reading A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan last week. It was enjoyable because I picked up some of the themes that teenage me missed when reading the series all those years ago. A gifted writer RIP

R.I.P. a true loss

If you aren't familiar with her work, "Left Hand of Darkness" right now is on sale at Audible for $4 and the narrator is George Guidall. I didn't add a link because I'm not looking for some kickback, just a rare combination of two all-time greats on one book and for very cheap.

RIP :( i love every single thing she has written, particularly the earthsea books.

RIP Ursula. I just finished The Left Hand of Darkness and am in the middle of the Earthsea series and it's absolutely fantastic. Love her writing.

See also https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16218391

That has more votes at the moment. This looks like a better source, though.

locusmag is a decades old magazine dedicated to scifi. It is a far better source than the nytimes on this matter.

All I mean is that the obituary linked to at the NY Times contains much more information than the one linked to at Locus. I'm not judging the quality of either source more broadly.

Locus promises a more extensive obit later. I'll guess they don't have writers on staff whose job is to write obits in advance and update periodically. ;-)

Similarly, the LeGuin site currently directs readers to the NYTimes obit: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/UKL_info.html

We shall miss her.

I read The Wizard of Earthsea in the 3rd grade. Literally. I would have it at my desk and try to read it by holding it under my desk.

Ursula Le Guin's is daughter of Alfred and Theodora Kroeber. Alfred Kroeber is a preeminent figure in the history of American anthropology and archeology, along with his PhD adviser Franz Boas. The influence of anthropology on Le Guin's writing and thought are easily seen in the Left Hand of Darkness, one of my favorite sci-fi novels.

I probably read these, and recognize the titles, but I cannot recall them. Time to revisit.

What a loss. A creator of worlds and unimaginable before experiences and understanding through knowing myself in her characters.

An activist and mentor for many writers. This is a sad day.

I read “The Lathe of Heaven” when I was younger. I remember being fascinated by it, as only a young person can be.

I hadn’t really thought to look at her other books since then (which is probably about 35 years). I’ll definintely be reading “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed” due to the comments on here. Thanks HN! And thank you U.K. LeGuin for introducing me to a world of ideas and possibilities.

"The Lathe of Heaven" has been made into film - twice! Both were made-for-TV movies [1]. Most people (and I agree) believe the earlier version made by PBS to be the better one.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lathe_of_Heaven#Adaptation...

The dispossessed is quite possibly one of the most important books I have ever read.

I love everything I've read by her, but one of her short stories "Buffalo Gals" was such a cool and unique story that I still think about it often:


Her National Book Award speech is short but very good. I like her expression "realists of a larger reality," but she also talks a lot about publishing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2TFeL_aPiA

People like Le Guin are immortals in their legacy. Her work is going to remembered for a thousand years.

The Lathe of Heaven is one of my favorite novels.

One of the things this NYT obituary does not mention is the influence of Jungian psychology on Le Guin. In the Wizard of Earthsea, for instance, the protagonist is figuratively and literally searching for his own shadow.

What a beautiful soul. You will live on in me, dear Ursula. Take my knee. I will be the dark knight of your soul. <*3 forever; in the stars.

I've been reading N.K. Jemison's works intermittently for the past year and perceive her as the literary successor to Le Guin.

One of the greats. Always Coming Home is one of my all-time favorites of hers. Required reading if you’re in California.

“Always Coming Home” is unique and powerful. I struggled with it many years ago, and could not quite tell if I liked it. All the chants and digressions bothered me and I don’t really remember much of the story. What I do remember is finding myself thinking about it and humming or sub vocalizing the damn chants for about a year and feeling like some thing had changed in me or in the world, a different emotional tone, or perhaps the light had changed color. The only other book that had that effect on me was “Gravity’s Rainbow” although in an entirely different way.

I am just in the flow of re-reading her novels, and now this news. :-( Such a writer! And one from whom it has been easy -- well, never easy, but accessible and immensely rewarding-- to learn the craft of storytelling on a human, epic scale.

God bless you and family, Teacher, and your voice still sings.

I'm not a massive fiction person (though I was as a kid), but "The Lathe of Heaven" is one of my very favourite works, in any medium or genre. Near-on perfect. RIP.

The music of my childhood. I read and re-read those novels.

I was 12 years old and fell in love with "A Wizard of Earthsea"

R.I.P She is one of the authors whose books have always made a long lasting impact on me.

I remember the Earthsea series as some of the best reading I've ever enjoyed. RIP

R.I.P. :(

I liked her anthology World's of exile and illusion.

Truly the passing of a legend. RIP.

So sad! I loved all Earthsea book.

She was truly one of my heroes.


It was always there in the middle of things.

Feels like I lost a friend


So sad.

I hoped that she would revisit Earthsea again.


This might not be the best time to put this comment, but quite some years ago I attempted reading Dispossessed, because it is such highly rated novel and Le Guin even more highly respected author. But I didn't get very far, the whole Communism vs Capitalism aspect felt so hamfisted and overbearing that I lost interest. That cold war did end, as such the context of modern reader is quite different. The political nature left kinda bad taste in my mouth when I was expecting more of fancy futuristic/scifi stuff.

Why do this?

It's not like Ursula K. Le Guin's work was directly focused on allegory.

Feeling absent from two systems was a major point of The Dispossessed, not the content of either systems.

The book was mostly about how Anarchism and Capitalism produce power structures that work against the individual.

The communists in the book were not mentioned a lot from what I remember (there was a communist state on Urras?).

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