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:

About Adam Lee

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

  • Daniel R

    Have you ever read anything by Mary Gentle? She’s a modern-day SF writer whose work often deals with feminist and free-thinking issues. Her books are very much inspired by Le Guin – one, Golden Witchbreed, is pretty much a rewrite of The Left Hand Of Darkness.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    ZOMG yes!!!1! I adore Ursula K. LeGuin. I didn’t know about the FFRF award — this makes me like her even more (though it doesn’t surprise me).

  • Grimalkin

    I love LeGuin! The Earthsea series were the first “grownup” books I ever read – although I think I was a bit too young to really understand them. I came back to them in my early twenties and enjoyed them even more.

    I remember when the SyFy channel did one of the Earthsea novels and put a white guy in as Ged. LeGuin wrote several articles saying that she had specifically written him to be non-white and she felt betrayed by SyFy’s choice.

  • Frank

    In high school I read her short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and I still think about that story all the time.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I read the Left Hand of Darkness and loved it. Now I like her even more!

  • Suzu

    I read one of the eathsea books when I was about 12, and was utterly disappointed by it (it just seemed to go nowhere. I suspect I was to young). A few years later I read “very far away from any where else” and loved it.

    then, two years ago at the recommendation of my mother I read “the left hand of darkness.” I enjoyed reading it very much, she pulled me into a strange, strange world. But I was persistently put off by what I took to be a vein of gentle misogyny and rigid gender stereotyping throughout the book.

    I took this to be a product of the time in which it was written, and have not read enough of her other books to have formed any opinion of her beyond that she is clearly a skilled writer and storyteller, but I am curious if anyone else, reading “darkness” or any of her other books felt the same kind of veiled misogyny.

  • Suzu

    I have now read several articles about her, and the FAQ on her web site and have found that she is, as I suspected, a sociologically and culturally complex writer. She seems write from a position of open mindedness, open to the wonder, and ambiguity which atheism, and a clear view of the human condition allows.
    I feel like I need a broader picture of her work.

    I am going to go to the used book store and buy more of her books.
    I have three more days before I have to go back to work.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    I love Ursula K. LeGuin. The first of her books I ever read was The Lathe of Heaven, and I remember really enjoying it, thinking it was different from many other books I’d read before. I immediately wanted to read more by her. The Left Hand of Darkness was fantastic. The two of her short story collections I’ve read, Changing Planes and The Compass Rose were good, too, especially the former (which was an assignment for an elective I took). I have a copy of The Dispossessed and intend to read it soon.

    One of the really thought-provoking and intriguing parts of her writing is that she looks into society and humanity. It seems to me (as the reader) that she builds these societies and then considers what might be the effect of some characteristics of that society (beliefs, gender, etc.) on it, and how it would be different from our own.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Orson Scott Card seems to be remarkably prolific and popular.

    Sad that he’s such a bigot.

    That makes him proof that naked hatred of atheists may still be the most common and unashamed form of bigotry in America.

    And perhaps the only form, today, that anyone can publicly indulge without fear of a significant political or social penalty.

    Less intense, I think, than racism or homophobia, it is also even now wholly unstigmatized as the wholly uncalled for and gratuitous venom it is.

    Many years ago, though of course I was familiar with the popular bigotry that reached into my own family, I was shocked at the dismissive and hateful remarks of Bush pere when he was, at the urging of Lee Atwater, trolling for votes by pretending to be much stupider, coarser, and more vulgar than he actually was.

    I think at that time I had taken the power of establishment liberalism, demonstrated throughout the sixties and into the seventies by its sponsorship of the civil rights and sexual revolutions, the latter so much a liberation of America from the power of Christians, Christianity, and the churches, as an indication of thoroughgoing liberalism in the entire American power elite.

    And here was so impeccable, privileged, and indisputable a representative of that establishment as the ex-boss of the CIA talking such utter, filthy, and bigoted rot.

    What terrible and bizarre things it says about America that a politician can publicly embrace such nonsense as Christianity or, perhaps even more laughably, Mormonism without his career being destroyed by ridicule while only one of our congress-critters has dared to openly admit his atheism.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Gotta disagree with you here: Wizard of Earthsea is brilliant writing.

    But Lathe of Heaven is her best, I think.

    We’ve had a slew of Philip K. Dick films. Why can’t we have more Le Guin films, instead of endless remakes…

  • Andrew G.

    Somehow I doubt she’ll be too keen to sell more film rights after the Earthsea butchery…

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    I’d like to recommend LeGuin’s children’s books, Catwings, and its sequels. Yes, cats with wings! Kittens with wings! These are beautiful stories about finding love and building trust in a dangerous world, beautifully illustrated.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Peter, I hadn’t heard of Catwings. Thanks for the tip!

    Andrew, good point. I never actually saw that, so I forgot about it. The TV movie of Lathe of Heaven was pretty good, though.

  • unintentionalhypocrite

    The only Ursula LeGuin work I have read is the original Earthsea trilogy, and I think “stodgy” is a good word to describe it. It wasn’t bad per say; it had its interesting moments, notably that bit with the labyrinth, but overall I just found the world she created quite gloomy and lonely – as far as I remember, it was a group of islands in an otherwise empty sea (or at least, nobody knew of the existence of any other lands beyond that particular group of islands). The thing about women not being permitted to do magic bothered me too, though I felt this may have been some kind of social commentary (?) I believe later books may go into the history of women’s magic and how it became despised; at least, I remember reading something like that on Wikipedia. I should look out for her other works…
    http://scimaps.org/submissions/7-digital_libraries/maps/thumbs/024_LG.jpg This beauty of a tangle attributes the first science fiction novel to a woman (Mary Shelley). This is very likely debatable, but it pleases me nonetheless ^.^

  • Syn

    Ursula K. Le Guin is a great writer – it’s too bad that more of the serious literary folks don’t read “science fiction”. I recommend “Fisherman of the Inland Sea”, which is a collection of stories, and “Searoad”, which isn’t science fiction at all. I think “The Dispossessed” should be required reading in high school.
    By the way, I found this blog because I was looking for a good discussion about gender & blog comments – there was one from February – Thanks.