Ursula K. Le Guin and the power of science fiction

Texts where dragons, magic and extraterrestrial life are used to explore issues of morality and the value of life aren’t an easy sell.

In one of Ursula Le Guin’s most popular short stories, “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas”, she describes a city overflowing with joy, where citizens spend their lives without a care in the world. The catch, of course, is the cost. Their continued happiness depends on the solitary imprisonment of one child. “The door is locked, and nobody will come.” 

All of Le Guin’s work shares this trait  — a bizarre fantastical scenario which is then cracked open to reflect problems that hint at those plaguing contemporary society. Historically, science fiction has not always seemed like the most obvious way to explore dilemmas around morality race, class, sexuality or gender. Le Guin, and her counterparts like Octavia Butler, and Isaac Asimov, instead saw sci-fi as the most effective vehicle to probe those issues.

That kind of pioneering work — particularly from Le Guin and Butler, who began their careers at a time when women comprised an even smaller minority of the writers in science fiction than today - helped lay the ground for contemporary writers like Naomi Alderman, author of The Power, to write about gender relations from an unconventional, fantasy angle. The reaction to news of Le Guin’s death on Monday, at 88-years old, demonstrated her influence on generations of writers.

Born in 1929 in California, Guin was the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer. As the sole girl of four siblings, Guin was a bookish loner growing up, going on to be an academic in Paris. A 2016 New Yorker profile demonstrates how unique she was — fiercely opinionated and introverted, full of contradictions with a wry sense of humour. After being presented with a list of her recent accolades, Le Guin quips, “I am getting really sick of being referred to as ‘the legendary’. I’m right here. I have gravity. A body and all that.”

That appreciative, hungry energy was obvious in her blog, which she maintained up to 2017, where she would criticise Amazon’s bookselling practices, document her cat’s idiosyncrasies and surmise whether being on the Internet was like being in heaven (Le Guin was not particularly active on social media). 

Le Guin has admitted several times that she didn’t quite know what to do with her work, particularly the early examples, as it didn't quite fit genre conventions. Her weird tales such as the “The Left Hand of Darkness”, where a man from a future Earth travels to a planet with very different ideas of gender, were a little too radical for the 1950s when she began writing. 

But after long periods of rejection, her stories eventually found their way into science fiction journals, magazines and literary houses.

Le Guin’s enduring legacy is that, as she broadened the scope of her work into short stories and poetry, she rebuffed attempts by publishers and editors to re-categorise her as “literary”. She maintained that she was both a genre author and a literary author, without one excluding the others. Her writing remains influential, long after its initial publication, because it’s both experimental and humane, regardless of whether it should be considered science fiction or highbrow literary work.

Science fiction often receives derision for its perceived lack of literariness, for want of another term. Le Guin herself has pointed out this issue throughout her life, such as in a 2006 article for this publication, that people often ignore “imaginative fiction” at their own peril, not realising the joy that can be gained from re-imagining our world. Conceptually, science fiction continues to be seen in this way.

It could have something to do with the term “science fiction”, which sounds like a paradox. Although public perceptions of “science” fluctuate, it’s generally established that science reveals the truths about our world — the way that laws of the natural world act on us. Combining this with fiction might seem antithetical but in reality, it shows us that the way we organise our world is often deficient, by fleshing out other options. Nothing is completely taboo, giving writers free reign both stylistically and conceptually.

That the popular conception of science fiction is that as a domain of the escapist, with nothing to offer for the dilemmas of our time, is a disservice to the continued relevance of some of its founding texts. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, anonymously published in 1818. Its 200 year anniversary this year saw a spate of events, magazine articles and books that examine its continuing relevance to contemporary anxieties about science. Engaging with science fiction is an opportunity to examine how many of our deeply entrenched ideas are functions of the world we create. 

Le Guin’s subtle influence can be felt outside of literature too. Techno-dystopian TV series, Black Mirror, situated at various points in the present and in potential futures, is our current era's most explicit deployment of this tactic, taking fears about technology and surveillance to outlandish extremes to make viewers uncomfortable about the world around them. The dramatic and unsettling nature of the show is a far cry from Le Guin’s ability to layer themes of social unrest into her fantastical worlds. but they touch on many similar fears. How can we tell if society is actually progressing? What if our choices and inventions actually worsen our quality of life? What kind of better future can we actually envisage?

It may seem that science fiction has a minimal role to play in answering these kinds of questions.Texts where dragons, magic and extraterrestrial life coexist with narratives on morality and the value of life might not seem like they address those dilemmas. However, the work that resonates endures because it reflects on what we value, down here, in our everyday lives. 

Le Guin’s grasp of that idea, and her willingness to stretch it as far as possible, made her a visionary. Without her commitment to the idea that science fiction could reflect something about the world, and that it could be literary, it’s hard to tell whether strange, surreal pieces of writing by contemporary authors such as Junot Diaz and David Mitchell could have found their audiences. 

In order to write the future, you have to have an inkling of what it holds. Le Guin pushed for another future on earth, even as she wrote countless variations in her creative output. Her grasp of the future seems eerily prescient, as she declared in a rousing National Book Awards speech in 2014 , that writers “who can remember freedom” will be valuable for the difficult times ahead. As she herself put it: “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology.