The Contributions of Freethinkers: Ursula K. LeGuin

Although I’ve highlighted the lives of some amazing feminists on Daylight Atheism, I don’t want to give the impression that the only thing women can be famous for is fighting for the rights of women. Today’s post is a reminder that freethinking women have made their mark in other areas of human culture as well.

Science fiction and fantasy have always been heavily male-dominated fields of literature. A 1966 reader poll of sci-fi’s greatest novels didn’t list a single entry written by a woman, and a similar 1973 poll of readers’ all-time favorite authors included only two women – one of whom, Andre Norton, wrote under a masculine-sounding name. But some women have made their mark in spite of this, and it’s the other one on that list whom this post is about.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California in 1929, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer. She was interested in fiction from a precocious age, writing one of her first short stories at the age of 11, but her career as an author truly took off in her early 30s. Among her first notable novels were the Earthsea books, a fantasy series about a magical world consisting of a vast archipelago of islands.

I read these in high school, long before I knew about any of Le Guin’s other works, and while they held my interest enough for me to complete the original trilogy, I wasn’t greatly impressed. The books seemed so stodgy and fatalistic; and while I didn’t fully realize it until much later, this may have been in part because of the viewpoints their author had absorbed from the cultural milieu. The protagonist, the wizard Ged, is a man, and the books go out of their way to stress that women’s magic is despised; one of the proverbs of Earthsea is “Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic.” (Some of her later short stories set in Earthsea go a long way toward redressing this balance.)

But I went back to Le Guin later in life, and I’m very glad I did. Many of her other novels are outstanding, and some of my particular favorites include:

  • The Lathe of Heaven: The story of a man whose dreams change reality, and how his greedy and unscrupulous psychiatrist tries to turn this power to his own benefit – with predictably disastrous results.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness: An emissary from Earth visits the planet of Gethen, technologically advanced but currently in the grip of an ice age, to convince its inhabitants to join a galactic federation of worlds called the Ekumen. The people of Gethen are hermaphrodites, androgynous most of the time except for a period of a few days each month when they become either biologically male or female, a state called “kemmer”. They’re also devoted to their own intricate and labyrinthine politics, suspicious of outsiders and unaware of what’s at stake beyond their own planet. (You can read a sample chapter on Le Guin’s website, which I can best describe as the Gethenian version of Romeo and Juliet.)
  • The Dispossessed: A story of two sister planets. One is Urras, rich in natural resources but torn by war between two authoritarian superpowers similar to the Cold War-era U.S. and USSR. The other, Anarres, is harsh and barren, but supports a people who live in a state of cooperative anarchy, with no central government or any other coercive institutions. (Although I still doubt that true anarchy would be workable, Le Guin paints the most realistic and plausible picture of one that I’ve ever read.) The protagonist, Shevek, is a brilliant physicist from Anarres who finds his research stymied by prejudice and jealousy, and travels to Urras in the hope of gaining support for his work and bringing about a reconciliation between the two worlds.

Le Guin’s noves have attracted widespread acclaim. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, as did a third book, The Word for World is Forest. Le Guin herself was named “Grand Master of Science Fiction” by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, one of only three women to win that honor, in addition to a host of other awards. But most telling of all, perhaps, is the recognition she’s received from her fellow authors. One of her novels’ hallmarks is a technology called the “ansible”, which allows for instantaneous communication across any distance, transcending the light-speed limit. Many other sci-fi authors have used the term in their own books as an homage, implicitly paying respect to her influence.

Le Guin’s later works consistently espouse a feminist viewpoint, as well as making it a point in each one to include a person of color as one of the main characters. And best of all, although some SF/F writers are raving religious bigots, this one is a bona fide freethinker. In 2009, she accepted an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which honors public figures who tell it like it is about religion. In her acceptance speech, she said:

Now, I honestly do not think all the tailors who have made those clothes, that God-costume, so busily, for all these centuries, did it or do it deliberately and knowingly as a con game, to deceive us. Maybe in part, but mostly I think the people who sew the garments of God are busy deceiving themselves. Priests, of course, can make a good living out of it and also gain secular power. But lay believers weave those garments day and night, all over the world, and to some of them it is the most important thing they do, and they love doing it. That’s fine with me, so long as they don’t try to make me do it with them.

…Let the tailors of the garments of God sit in their tailor shops and stitch away, but let them stay there in their temples, out of government, out of the schools. And we who live among real people — real, badly dressed people, people wearing rags, people wearing army uniforms, people sleeping on our streets without a blanket to cover them —let us have true charity: Let us look to our people, and work to clothe them better.

Other posts in this series:

SF/F Sunday: Goodnight Stars
Atlas Shrugged: Ayn Rand on Mike Wallace
Announcing: Arc of Fire
Atlas Shrugged: The Cobra Commander Dialogues
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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