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Ursula K. Le Guin Was a Creator of Worlds (neh.gov)
199 points by samclemens 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments

Great eassy. I read a few of her novels last year (Left Hand of Darkness, the Dispossessed, and some of her Earthsea novels). What struck me is even with the amount of effort that goes into building her worlds, she turns her lens back on her characters near the end, with them either figuring out something about themselves or how they relate to other people.

The "fate of the world" gets evoked a lot in popular fantasy/scifi nowadays but I really appreciate the way she chose to make her protagonists the final focus of her narratives. Don't want to spoil anything ;) so I'd encourage anyone that's interested to seek her work out.

In "The Left Hand of Darkness" I really struggled with naming, maybe because they didn't have a latin-based structure. But I really appreciated on the other hand her effort to make sense of the language, toponomy and so on all together.

I read The Left Hand of Darkness last year. I found the names and place names quite tricky too, but it helped reinforce the alieness of the setting. Ursula's writing is so earnest and immersive. Rigorous world building coupled with veritably human characters made for a wholly engaging and pleasurable read.

Currently reading it for the first time, and agree that Ursula's writing style is immersive, and also I find her quite poetic (some of the fables she weaves into the story are marvelous). I feel just as lost and confused as the envoy so far, which seems appropriate.

Also the geek in me loves the Ansible ;-)

I read it last year too.


. . . . .

I liked that she convinced me that the main character was a women in the beginning, but later revealing it's actually a man.

Otherwise the whole book read more like a fantasy novel than sci-fi. I found it rather boring too.

I remember being caught off guard by the main character being black, or at least dark-skinned. It was a really nice off-hand comment that shakes you out of the default world-view you can acquire or project when reading by inserting onself (younger white male in my case) into the novel. The way it was clearly established but then also not dwelt upon really struck me at the time I was reading it, and the entire novel still sticks with me.

She did the same thing with Earthsea:

>The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I’m white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.

> I liked that she convinced me that the main character was a women in the beginning, but later revealing it's actually a man.

Try "Too Like Lightning" by Ada Palmer :)

Uh... spoiler alert!

I'm a bit confused by OP here - I didn't at all have that impression. I thought it was fairly clear from the start what the gender of the main protagonist was. Perhaps I misread...

The name didn't sound female to me "Genly Ai"... I know Ai as from Japanese, meaning "love" and I know a girl called that.

The story starts from his first-person perspective, and he talks about how he feels insecure and about his fancy robes.

The protagonist in Left Hand of Darkness is 100% a human male (and a bit of a man's man to boot).

I know, I just didn't think this for the first few pages.

It's not a spoiler. Genly is male and there's no attempt to hide this or any plot mystery about it. The ambivalence is in the gender of the natives of the planet Gethen.


Out of curiosity, what names did you have trouble with? Would you say this was one of your first scifi novels? I ask because I'm a native Spanish speaker and had no trouble at all with Le Guin's naming in The Left Hand of Darkness. I remember they were standard scifi-sounding names, though better than the usual fare of names like "R'Lyeh", "Cthulhu", "R'hllor", "Klingon" and "Qo'noS" and such like :)

Have you read The Lord of the Rings, and did you have trouble with the made up non-Latin names? (you'd be in good company: I know plenty of people have trouble with Tolkien languages, which I also find puzzling, because I simply assume "these are foreign names" and go on with the plot)

Such a legend - for an easy intro definitely the short stories in Birthday of the World are worth a read

I always had that feeling, that while she was a few steps ahead, on the outset of the journey through one of her worlds- neither me nor her knew where this would end. This whole journey was never there to put me, the reader in any state, not a ride through emotions heading for a foregone conclusion. I loved the dispossesed. Sun is mine, and always will be.

Perhaps unrelated - is there anywhere a repository of fictional worlds that creators can use for their projects at cost of free of charge?

This would be great for many industries - computer game development, board game development, movie creators, writers, etc. :)

That's a really interesting idea. I know there are lots of generators out there for worldbuilding purposes and I have made my own on the go for things like conceptual art or short fiction. But to your question, you might ask at /r/worldbuilding on Reddit, which has some really neat stuff going on a lot of the time. /r/rpg might also be helpful.

I hope this doesn't end up opening a horrid can of worms. What are the implications if the worlds and concepts overlap ?

At a personal level, I would be be very interested in learning/finding out such things though. Even more so if it is possible to automate this "discovery"

Resolving overlap might be the fun part, depending on your psychology. For these types of people there's really no use for predictive anticipation as it can spoil the opportunity to solve unique problems :-)

BTW I "automatically" created a planet while sitting in a boring church meeting last Sunday. I used a kind of "dice gradient" method with the dice app on my phone. "How hospitable is this planet?" OK, so a 2. Not very. What's the temperature? 2 again. Geez, it's freezing.

Anyway after about 15 rolls the planet turned out to be used as some sort of ancient computing device, channeling surface air as a cooling method. The ~20 person exploration team was struggling to get past even the most rudimentary underground security, with indications that the past custodians of this world had significant leverage over physical objects, perhaps through technological means.

A lot of fun, working this up :-)

You should read the short story “Glacial” in “Galactic North” by Alastair Reynolds.

Thanks, I just skimmed the Wikipedia summary out of curiosity. It looks like an interesting and pretty intense story!

My own idea was that the planet I rolled up hosted a sort of cargo-cult experiment, where the beings that hosted the computing infrastructure were using it for really basic tasks that were easily perceptible to their sensing skills, not understanding what it was, really. Their technological skills included rudimentary large-mass manipulation, and after making a place for this equipment and securing it, they had long since died out, while their "data center" was still flourishing and had stored extremely valuable data.

Oooh that’s real nice. I use a lot of those themes in fiction I write / blueprint (probing the limits of understanding, the interpretation of legacy by the inadequate living, etc)

The RPG game "Traveller" [sic] has a method for creating fictional worlds using a variety of dice rolls. The original game was created in the early 80s, but the multiple editions since have created system of remarkable depth. One supplement even was able to generate biomes mapped to a dodecahedral sphere.

Size, Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Population, Government, Law level, Technology, all would dictate the kind of goods available, the political structures, the economics.

It was so easy to generate systems that the game came up with an Atlas of the Imperium which featured thousands of stars. I can confirm that a sufficiently motivated nerd could rustle up a RPG subsector (with 20-40 planetary systems) in an hour.


This is a flamey and unsubstantive comment, and we're trying for better here.

> Don't introduce flamewar topics unless you have something genuinely new to say. Avoid unrelated controversies and generic tangents.

> Comments should get more civil and substantive, not less, as a topic gets more divisive.


how is this flamey and unsubstantive? i'm just discussing WHY guin is being given more prominence in recent years over her contemporaries. everything i said is relevant in our current social context and doesn't active "dogwhistle" or promote sexism or racism. she is being promoted heavily on almost every forum for an agenda and the agenda must be brought to light(even if it is a positive agenda)

Whereas I just this week finished ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ after my partner put it aside temporarily, so thought "why not?" as I was in between books, so entered into it with zero expectation and.. loved it.

Some truly wonderful writing — actually beautiful in points — and grand ideas and vision. Heart too, which is often missing in sci-fi.

Contrast that with the very-oft promoted and recommended “The Three Body Problem” which makes many an appearance in HN, which I started the other night which is — bluntly — awfully written. It has some wonderful ideas, which is what has kept me from putting it down, but I've been cringing at how poor the dialogue and exposition often is. It's borderline amateur. imho, obv.

If you like Atwood's worlds, you'll probably like Le Guin's. If you simply deride their encouragement as 'SJW', you're probably pushing your own agenda.

The comparison between The Three Body Problem series and some of Le Guin's books is interesting because the two authors have such wildly different strengths and weaknesses. I love them both but, purely in terms of writing, there is absolutely no comparison. Le Guin is one of the all time greats .

Just to be clear, I liked the 3BP series a lot. The books are generally paced well and there's just about the right amount of world building. However, the long expository monologues break up the flow. It's a shame because it's a great story and he tells it well. Those who have read the books will recognize his over reliance on on a particularly lazy storytelling device to introduce ideas which I can best summarize as follows: "here is this idea and this is why it's important and here's all the nuances to it so then this next idea came about and this is why it's important." That's bad writing. Making the characters academics so that Liu Cixuin can dress up his ideas as "theories" in this way is wholly unconvincing and, as you said, amateurish.

By contrast, Le Guin is masterful at weaving her ideas into the narrative of the story. Ideas are not introduced as standalone concepts and then referenced by the story. Instead, they are woven into the fabric of the story itself. This makes the ideas more compelling and keeps the narrative brisk and interesting. On the other hand, Le Guin often spends far too much time world building. The Left Hand of Darkness is one of my favorite books, but the first half of the book plods on rather painfully. The second half feels like a reward for slogging through the first half.

Not sure if you've read The Dispossessed but I think it's better than TLHOD. It still has a bit too much world building in the first half but it's a tighter and more compactly told tale. Her most tightly told tale is probably The Lathe of Heaven. That book was incredible and I think it showcases her literary skill better than some of her more famous books. Definitely check it out some time if you liked her other work.

Thank you for the recommendations - I'll be getting them in!

To be honest, my problem with her work that I've encountered so far is trying to see past the generally awful covers they suffer (I know, I know).

I try to avoid reading synopses and back cover descriptions, so having not read any of her work, i found it quite hard to discern whether I'd enjoy them or not.

Thanks again.

I heard that Lathe of Heaven was written with her friend and fellow author (Philip K Dick) in mind.

One of my favorite books, period. I wish more authors made a try of the themes of a fellow author.

The Three Body Problem is famous mainly because it criticizes the Chinese government. it also suffers from a poor translation to English.

I have been wondering about the translation — I actually accidentally started The Dark Forest a month or so ago, before realising it was the successor to The Three Body Problem and putting it down again. There's a different translator and whilst some of the dialogue felt a bit clunky, I was quite swept up by it — I'm looking forward to taking it back on and comparing!

Thanks for the note about the criticism of the state — it's very evident and I did find it a bit surprising. I'd simply assumed it was perhaps 'allowed' to criticise Cultural Revolution-era China as such great strides had been made since then.. but now I think about it ‘Tiananmen Square’ and contemporary censorship hints otherwise. Interesting, thanks — particularly as another of Cixin Liu's works appears to be have been made into a bombastic blockbuster movie, presumably with State encouragement ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8LAwozrXPo )

What facts made you come to the conclusion that her popularity and ratings are boosted "more for being a particular gender than for her ability"?

The specific claim that "she was pretty much forgotten outside of sci-fi readers for a long time" seems suspicious, considering she won a National Book Award in '73, was a finalist for a Pulizer in '97, and was declared a Library of Congress Living Legend in 2000. When was this period of forgetfulness?

You're replying to someone that uses dogwhistle language ("sjw blogs"). The unstated reasoning is that since women or trans people are inferior, if they are popular or acclaimed it -must- mean that there is some politically motivated push behind it, while more deserving males are ignored (see the issues with reactionary Hugo awards voting slates in the near past).

You seem to be reading a lot into a comment that was very upfront and open about what they meant. SJW is a commonly used term that is well understood by most people.

Your claim that the poster is calling certain groups inferior is entirely unwarranted. Please argue against the points they are actually making.

Edit: For examples, look at the various other replies that responded to the post without absurd speculation.

SJW is a commonly used term that is well understood to be a dogwhistle and strawman, as I stated. There are other commonly used and well understood terms in the English language that similarly are never used directly in the context of productive intellectual discourse (you might be familiar with the one for black people). I just perfomed reasonable inference, not absurd speculation.

Le Guin was never forgotten, she was always one of the greats, long before affirmative action came.

You are right about those more recent books though. I bought "The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet" and "A Closed and Common Orbit" and was thoroughly disappointed.

Here is somebody, who has clearly great ideas - and is incapable of running with them, like Le Guin did. All problems, all conflict, all interestingness - is carved from the book like a diamond grinded down into a pearl. It always returns to what i would term "emotional pornography", a hugfest - very similar to what firefly became later on. I expect more from my scifi, a lot more, i rather have bad writting- which these books did not have at all.

They just dont go anywhere, like Le Guin did. So, while the parent is overgeneralizing, i think he is right here. The Nebula was undeserved in my opinion. If it must be for a woman, give it to Le Guin post mortem.

that was exactly my point - her books are great theoretical discourses that don't bring the message home because there is no real ending

Because all female authors universally get fantastic acclaim and success purely because they are women, because their gender is enough to shoot them to the top of the literary elite regardless of merit. Or something. Sheesh.

Earthsea opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world. Maybe part of that was because she was a woman, sure, but plenty of male authors have equally given me useful insights into masculinity too though, so it's all good. Her gender was simply one of the attributes she brought to the table, as with any author. The important thing is she did so with such consummate skill and creativity.

I was writing a long answer, but the comment you replied to got flagged (for good reason), and your reply is a lot more of a positive comment to hang this off anyway:

She's more of a talking point in some time because she cared about minority representation and gender in sci fi before it was cool (though interestingly by her own admission she took too long to address gender).

Her Earthsea books were noteworthy both because she explicitly made the protagonists and most of the Earthsea archipelago inhabitants explicitly non-white, except for the barbaric Kargs, as well as for her repeated run-ins with publishers who tried to make Ged in particular white (on covers and the like), and thereby demonstrated exactly why it mattered that he is not.

So she is not lionized for her gender. She has gotten renewed attention because she spent decades of her career championing these issues at a point where most other authors in her niches didn't even acknowledge there was an issue, and the rest of the world is finally catching up.

Even for people who do not like her niches, she is worth reading exactly because of how she dealt with issues of race and gender and sexuality. You can read her books without caring about them as a political act, and you'll still come away with a different view of the world than what you'll get elsewere. Look at how much fantasy still to this day presents the protagonists as all white, and "exotic characters from foreign lands" and antagonists as being far more likely to be dark skinned, to see why. Then watch the 2003 TV adaptation of Earthsea and see how even knowing this, the studio made it mostly a whitewash (and read her justifiably annoyed reaction) - to anyone who thinks this does not matter, I would say that if it did not matter then surely it wouldn't have mattered to follow her descriptions either.

Or read Left Hand of Darkness in light of modern discussions of gender and consider it was written in 1969.

She was ahead of the game when she started doing this, and rather depressingly she is still ahead of the game now, many decades later, and a year after her death.

And of course she was actually just presenting a more representative, complete conception of a world rather than just white dudes in space, or with swords.

Exactly. While the newest Earthsea book can feel like they're getting a bit heavy-handed, for the most part she just wrote the characters, and they happen to not be "white dudes in space", but you might not even notice.

It's notable, I think, that a lot of white people (me included) didn't/don't even pick up on the color of the characters in Earthsea. But the descriptions are there, black on white. Le Guin herself wrote about that after the TV-series:

> I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don’t notice, don’t care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being “colorblind.” Nobody else does.

But that also speaks to the fact that didn't write stereotypical black characters, or stereotypical women. She just wrote people that happened to be black, or women, and sometimes the color of their skin or gender is just casually mentioned well into the story. Only when it is essential to the plot (like in Left Hand of Darkness) will she make an point of it.

Oh come on man. It’s 2019. Leave your sexism and transphobia behind. It’s time to stop being an asshole.

Being an arsehole has been making a comeback since about 2010. She's just following the trend.

Hot take: she's the anti-Heinlein. Rhetorically, there are more similarities than differences. Both use fiction primarily for parables - to dramatise their own particular moral slant - rather than open-ended exploration.

Neither is unique in that, but it seems like both were at opposite poles for their time. IMO the moral slant in both is rather heavy-handed and - ironically - there's a sort of bedrock of puritanism motivating both of them, although with different apparent aims, and expressed in very different ways.

> Rhetorically, there are more similarities than differences.

Nobody reads Heinlein for the beauty of his prose, but Le Guin is frequently held up as one of the great stylists of the genre.

Actually, there is a surprising amount of crossdressing in Heinlein's work.

And that’s not even scratching the surface of the unusual sexual entanglements his characters get into.

There’s a character in one short story who is his own mother _and_ father.

The Earthsea series is outstanding, and has roughly the same broad appeal as Tolkien / CS Lewis / Rowling.

I try to mention this whenever Earthsea comes up, but she revisited it after a long gap, so anyone who enjoyed the Earthsea trilogy should go back and read the rest of it.

I felt otherwise. I’ve read several fantasy authors I liked (Tolkien, Martin, Jemisin, Gaiman, Pratchett, Rowling, Sanderson, Lynch, Rothfuss, Jordan) and ended up reading all the books they wrote. I was underwhelmed by the first book of the Earthsea series and abandoned it. I think it’s partly that some of elements of the story inspired later authors (to wit, Paolini) so this doesn’t feel original just like Seinfeld Isn’t Funny. But also, the characters were so boring and one dimensional.

Le Guin is hard to stomach as you get older. I can read CS Lewis and Tolkien with a forgiving eye but not Lewis. Rowling is terrible. Susan Cooper should have had her success.

I don't find Le Guin hard to stomach at 43. CS Lewis on the other hand is heavy-handed religious propaganda.

But I can understand some taking issue with Le Guin. The language of the Earthsea books in particular is intentionally simple. My 9 year old has read most of the Earthsea books, and the series was initially explicitly targeted at teenagers.

For some that's hard to look past.

Some le Guin is a little, unpolished. Some of her magazine short stories; Rocannon's World, which is vaguely set in the ecumenical universe, but flying cat horses?

I think I've reread her whole earthsea cycle about every decade since ~1996, so maybe its time for another go.

I will say, some of her magazine fiction didn't age well. Some of the shorter stories and dime novels are fun, but, well wonky and incoherent. Not that I think she was going for coherence, but it distracts from the narrative once you are bit familiar with her worlds.


With the exception that she died a year ago :( I do like her work, though - her metabooks (writing about the process of writing fiction) are quite good, and her translation of the Tao Te Ching is really well done.

This “she’s only popular because she’s a black woman” stance without any specific critique of her work is unwarranted and quite nearly racist.

Are you perhaps thinking of Octavia Butler, here? Le Guin was white.

she wasn't black though?

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