Ursula Le Guin has always (at least since I was an actual young adult in my early twenties reading a lot of English books) been a big influence on me both with her fiction and the ideas behind it, even though I’ve only read a fraction of her output, and I actually like more obscure books much more than the books I’m expected to like. According to the fans who read her for her politics I should probably be ashamed that for example ‘the dispossessed’ was hard to read for me, and I haven’t put ‘the left hand of darkness’ on my reread list either yet, but I like to reread certain Hainish cycle books regularly (‘the Telling’ being my favourite) and especially the female-centered Earthsea books (‘The tombs of Atuan’ and ‘Tehanu’) stay fascinating, as do certain of her short stories, including very conceputal ones as ‘the matter of Seggri’ and ‘the ones who walk away from Omelas’.
What I always loved about her is her ability to make up new cultures with completely different social relations, completely different social construct of class and gender, completely different ways of living, and in the case of ‘the left hand of darkness’ completely different biological sexuality for humans. It’s a fascinating exercise in how things could have been different, and a kind of fiction that I like a lot because it show the relativity of our own culture and all its social constructs. Or even of our species…
All of this is why I was shocked by a remark in an afterword she wrote to ‘the tombs of Atuan’, the second Earthsea book that centers around the young priestess Tenar, serving dark powers in a cult that’s clearly in decline. To be honest, I find it bewildering and scary that a great female author who’s generally considered a pioneer of feminist fiction was so unable to imagine a female hero in a fantasy story. I don’t really think that I would have much problems imagining one, but I might not be the best person to write heroic fantasy and I don’t really have a deep connection to any archetypal difference between the sexes like she seems to have here…
“When I was writing the story in 1969, I knew of no women heroes of heroic fantasy since those in the works of Ariosto and Tasso in the Renaissance. These days there are plenty, though I wonder about some of them. The women warriors of current fantasy epics—ruthless swordswomen with no domestic or sexual responsibility who gallop about slaughtering baddies—to me they look less like women than like boys in women’s bodies in men’s armor.
Be that as it may, when I wrote the book, it took more imagination than I had to create a girl character who, offered great power, could accept it as her right and due. Such a situation didn’t then seem plausible to me. But since I was writing about the people who in most societies have not been given much power—women—it seemed perfectly plausible to place my heroine in a situation that led her to question the nature and value of power itself. (…)
Heroic fantasy descends to us from an archaic world. I hadn’t yet thought much about that archaism. My story took place in the old hierarchy of society, the pyramidal power structure, probably military in origin, in which orders are given from above, with a single figure at the top. This is the world of power over, in which women have always been ranked low.
In such a world, I could put a girl at the heart of my story, but I couldn’t give her a man’s freedom, or chances equal to a man’s chances. She couldn’t be a hero in the hero-tale sense. Not even in a fantasy? No. Because to me, fantasy isn’t wishful thinking, but a way of reflecting, and reflecting on reality. After all, even in a democracy, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, after forty years of feminist striving, the reality is that we live in a top-down power structure that was shaped by, and is still dominated by, men. Back in 1969, that reality seemed almost unshakable.
So I gave Tenar power over—dominion, even godhead—but it was a gift of which little good could come. The dark side of the world was what she had to learn, as Ged had to learn the darkness in his own heart.”
Maybe I didn’t read enough of this kind of fantasy, but I never got the idea when I was young that women or girls could not be heroic, or could not be on top somewhere of a fantasy pyramid of power. From Yoko Tsuno comics over Thura the defender of Thule (from Thea Beckman’s untranslated ‘children of mother Earth’ trilogy) to female villains like Jadis of Narnia, I never knew that there was a world of imagination in which it was impossible to put women in certain roles. Plus I always assumed that imagination was free to easily make up such things, and that such things were quite possible, on our and other worlds.
Especially in combination with her speculative sociology and the idea of true names that hold magic in the Earthsea trilogy the idea that a writer like Le Guin was unable to conceptualise a woman as a hero in such a story is really tragic, and it shows that there must have been (and maybe still is for some) a thoughtform-barrier that creates a distance between the sexes that is much darker and deeper than I myself have ever encountered, and that probably also goes back further to very dark historical times of our species.
There is another limit to Le Guin’s thinking that I want to point out that is quite relevant at the moment and that is probably worth a second blogpost too, connected to ‘the word for world is forest’, a short book about a planet of greenhaired small humanoids who have never heard of killing or war, who learn how to defend themselves when Earthlings take over their planet in the typical colonial fashion as Westerners have done to the rest of the planet in the last 500 years. Which is more or less the same plot as the Avatar-movie, only with long blue people instead of small green ones. But it was only after reading Joan Slonczewski’s ‘A Door into Ocean’ and seeing some remarks from the author that I understood something that was very sad about the story, something that Le Guin could not re-imagine, but that we will need to learn to re-imagine as a species, and Joan Slonczewski can be able to help us with that, as can the aforementioned Thea Beckman trilogy too. ‘A door into Ocean’ is like Le Guin’s books a work of speculative sociology and even sexuality, and describes among other things a female-only planet of non-violent and rather anarchist ‘Sharers’ living on rafts in the ocean. Slonczewski describes on her site how the book was written not only as an answer to Dune, but also to the word for world is forest’:
Dune depicts several male-dominated societies whose members scheme and oppress one another. The psychology of the characters is compelling, and study of it was helpful for me. Nevertheless, the societies in Dune are all limited to those dominated by males and violence. (Even the female Bene Gesserit use violent means, and direct most of their scheming toward manipulation of males.) Thus, in Ocean I attempted to oppose the Dune concept by depicting ocean-dwelling females in nonviolent revolution, who succeed without losing their humanity–as Paul and the Fremen sadly do. The Word for World is Forest is a more direct predecessor of Ocean. Forest started out as my favorite of LeGuin’s books, but in the end was an intense disappointment. LeGuin’s forest-dwellers start out as unconditional pacifists, with inborn mechanisms of self-discipline similar to those of the Sharers; but in the end, in order to throw off their oppressors, they, too must give up their pacifism and their own humanity; the ending is even more bleak than Dune. In Ocean, I imagined a “forest” turned upside-down: the trees stretch their branch/roots into water, an endless source of life and power. The Sharers use this power, enabled by their superior genetic technologies, to maintain their way of life. Their own nonviolent politics overcomes the oppressor.
It’s clear to me that humanity need exactly that now, an imagination in which we can go beyond the myth of redemptive violence, but I also disagree with both Beckman and Slonckzewsky’s stories that such a thing would be more a feminine thing than a masculine thing, which is a thing for a future post.
What’s important now is that we need stories that are different from the same old toxic narratives that we’ve been fed as a culture. Stories that tell us how to be actually human as men and women without oppression or a toxic war between the sexes between us. Stories about how we can do things differently and live outside of the strange hang-ups of Western and nearby cultures, and most of all stories that go beyond our addiction to violence and competition as the only way.
Only if we tell new stories we can change the world, and we desperately need some change!
What do you think?
Also on this blog about Ursula Le Guin:
On the sex-life of aliens and sexism here on Earth…
The power found in the True Language of the Universe…