—The Left Hand Of Darkness
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.
Her books were potent brews of control, acceptance, family, and love. I keep hoping Kindred will be made into a mini-series one day.
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
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.
Well, the book is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia"
I don't believe this phrase was a subtitle so much as part of the cover blurb. It's not mentioned again.
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.
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)
What a frightfully bizarre turn.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
EDIT: the quote is from a speech, which you can hear/see in this video:
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."
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Unless, of course, if that person is named "Boss".
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.
― Ursula K. Le Guin, accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards
The EarthSea Trilogy has stuck with me too.
Short read and available online:https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf
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?
I'm not usually affected by authors passing away but damn this stings a little. One of my favourite authors.
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 will be missed.
Incredible author. R.I.P.
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.
She did her best to imagine a communist system that was nearly ideally designed and it still fails in so many ways.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Edit: Personally I would sign up in an instant.
Anarchists generally get along with communists even worse than capitalists do, so I don’t think this distinction is just pedantry.
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?
E.g. the founder of (left)-libertarianism was an anarcho-communist (Joseph Déjacque) , 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)  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).
 This is the first use of the term libertarian in a political sense: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/joseph-dejacque-on-t...
What about Star Trek?
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.
Enterprise, parts of DS9, Discovery and the new movies have largely done away with that format. It's a very sharp relief.
when i read that first i had to put the book away and walk around a minute.
The book also had a big effect on me.
"[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."
Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life:
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky.
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." 
What an impressive choice of words!
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?
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?
her sequels are more reflective. you might like them more.
But he had not brought anything. His hands were empty, as they had always been.
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.
That has more votes at the moment. This looks like a better source, though.
Similarly, the LeGuin site currently directs readers to the NYTimes obit: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/UKL_info.html
We shall miss her.
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.
An activist and mentor for many writers. This is a sad day.
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.
God bless you and family, Teacher, and your voice still sings.
It was always there in the middle of things.
I hoped that she would revisit Earthsea again.
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 communists in the book were not mentioned a lot from what I remember (there was a communist state on Urras?).