I was stuck in fantasy. Ursula Le Guin helped me look beyond.
A few weeks ago, I heard that Ursula K. le Guin, the notable American science-fiction and fantasy author had passed away. My first reaction on hearing that was, “What? Was she still alive?” For some reason, I had always thought of her as one of those old-time authors, contemporaries of people like J.R.R. Tolkien. Something about the way she wrote didn’t seem characteristic of a ‘modern’ author – or what ‘modern’ meant by the definition I created in my juvenile simplicity.
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I picked up my first Le Guin book, A Wizard of Earthsea, when I was in my fantasy-obsessed phase, having, as a compulsive re-reader, just made my way through Tolkien’s A Lord of the Rings for the millionth time. I was browsing through the shelves of my school library at the time, looking for something similar to satisfy my thirst. When A Wizard of Earthsea caught my eye, it seemed to fit the bill, especially going by the cover which portrayed a cloaked wizard confronting an evil dragon across a glittering sea. The book itself was worn, which to me is a plus. New books, for some reason, just don’t have the same kind of appeal as an old, weathered one, with pages all brown with age.
My first reading of the book seemed to confirm my initial impression – it was a simple classic fantasy. It followed the misadventures of a young, talented wizard named Ged, in pursuit of his ultimate nemesis. Fairly standard stuff, plot-wise and of course, I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, on rereading I began to realize how her main characters are not always engaged in battling external foes, but sometimes trying to overcome intense internal conflict. Here, the lines between good and evil are blurred and intrinsically ‘good’ characters and obviously ‘evil’ characters are almost non-existent. In her Earthsea novels, the conflicts faced by the main character are often created by his own misdoing and are resolved by self-sacrifice and him learning from his mistakes. Instead of having the ‘good side’ win, Le Guin has the idea of a ‘balance of forces’. An idea I had seldom seen in other books of the same genre. They usually follow the format of the (often white male) protagonist involved in a desperate battle for good, and how he typically triumphs through superior strength, skill, ingenuity, or simply by being the good guy.
When the sci-fi channel made movie versions of the first two Earthsea books in 2004, Le Guin was very critical of the adaptation. She especially disliked the fact that the main character was cast with a white actor, while in the books he has ‘red-brown’ skin. Being a non-white myself, this is something I easily identified with. She writes:
“Most of the characters in my fantasy and far-future science fiction books are not white. They’re mixed; they’re rainbow…Whites are a minority on Earth now – why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger coloured gene pool, in the future?”
Her main characters are not always male either. Her female characters are much more than the badass-but-still-feminine stereotypes, which widely populate modern young-adult books like the Shadowhunter or Divergent series. Le Guin’s characters seem to be more real. In The Tombs of Atuan the story follows Tenar, a girl living in a highly religious sect, where she is forced to sacrifice her identity as a human being to the gods as part of her devotion. Through such settings, Le Guin explores ideas of growing up, identity, psychological conditioning and other deep philosophical concepts.
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This painting of a young girl is realistic and relatable. It touches upon the situations, societies and backgrounds of all people currently living on earth, as opposed to the white-upper-middleclass young adults portrayed in most young adult fiction.
Le Guin was a very vocal feminist. She often roundly criticized the male-dominated field of writing science-fiction, once saying:
“I’d like to ask the men here to consider idly, in some spare moment, whether by any chance they’ve been building any walls to keep the women out, or to keep them in their place, and what they may have lost by doing so.”
I hadn’t realized how male-dominated sci-fi writing was until I started reading her work (and a few others, like Margaret Atwood). Until then, my primary sources for the genre were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Though I really enjoyed their work, I noticed recently that most of their central characters were male.
Apart from feminist views, Le Guin also expressed her political opinions in her work. Influenced a lot by ideas like Taoism and anarchism, she wrote stories like The Dispossessed which is about an anarchic society in conflict with a capitalist one. Here is one of my favourite quotes of her regarding capitalism.
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“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So, did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.”
She is known for campaigning during industry battles against Google and Amazon and openly criticizing their monopoly over the market of selling books. Amazon supposedly used to pressurize publishers to publish the kind of books they want (less risky or non-radical titles).
Le Guin has voiced her criticisms of capitalist models that many countries follow, and the intense exploitation of a large section of the human population that is the basis on which this model rests. For me, this ‘exploitation of the masses’ is not a completely abstract idea – I see it in some form or the other in my daily life, whether it is having hundreds of building-construction sites all over my city, brimming with workers who are obviously having to contend with extremely miserable conditions or seeing railway platforms covered with sleeping people who cannot find a home.
Through radical ideas and fantastical settings—a man whose dreams shape the real world, a small group of humans sent on a generation-long journey to colonize another planet—she spoke about several relevant and more importantly relatable issues of today. Having a voice in today’s world where the freedom to criticize things that need to be criticized is being increasingly encroached upon. This is something that I think is rather necessary… “The future is,” she once said, “…a means of thinking about reality.”
When Le Guin passed away, on the 22nd of January this year, many notable authors such as Neil Gaiman and Stephen King publicly mourned her passing. However, as she once wrote,
“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
This article was originally published in Snipette- https://medium.com/snipette/not-just-fantasy-82d5133ad82d