The education of Ursula Le Guin


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A connection can be made in between Ursula Le Guin’s fiction and her father’s groundbreaking work in anthropology.
Oregon State University, CC BY-SA

Philip W. Scher, University of Oregon

On Jan. 22, Ursula K. Le Guin died in Portland, Oregon. Since then, much has been written memorializing her genre-defying body of work, her contributions to feminism and science fiction, and her broad interest in human society and government.

But as a cultural anthropologist, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between Le Guin and her father, anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber.

Kroeber’s ideas – which had a profound influence on his daughter’s writing – stemmed from an important development in the discipline of anthropology, one that viewed human culture as something that wasn’t ingrained, and had to be taught and learned.

Culture isn’t genetic

Kroeber’s mentor was a Columbia University anthropologist named Franz Boas. Kroeber was especially drawn to Boas’ newly developed notion of culture and the broader theory of “cultural relativism.”

Cultural relativism emerged in the late 19th century as an alternative to theories like social Darwinism that linked culture to evolution. These theories – widely accepted at the time – tended to rank human societies on an evolutionary scale. Not surprisingly, Western European civilizations were seen as the pinnacle of culture.

But Boas proposed something radically different. He insisted, based on field-based research, that humans live in stunningly diverse cultural worlds shaped by language, which creates institutions, aesthetics, and ideas and notions of right and wrong. He further argued that each society needs to reproduce its culture through teaching and learning.

Kroeber described culture as “superorganic.” According to this idea, the “civilizational achievements” of any group of people weren’t passed down biologically and could only be taught. If we’re deprived of our access to human instruction – books, guides, teachers – we won’t know how to build buildings, write poetry and compose music. Humans, Kroeber knew, are hardwired to create, but there’s no such thing as a “hereditary memory” that allows a people to intuitively know how to recreate specific things.

He told the hypothetical story of a baby taken from France and brought to China. She would, he argued, grow up speaking perfect Chinese and would know no French. His point – as obvious as it might seem today – was that there was no hereditary quality to “Frenchness” that would carry over, genetically, to a child born of French parents.

The idea of culture as “superorganic” says that people are organic lifeforms, like ants or dogs or fish, but culture is “added” to them, which influences their behaviors. Ants and dogs don’t need culture to reproduce their behaviors: Raised in isolation from their own kind, they still do the things they were programmed to do.

Upending the status quo

Kroeber, along with many of his fellow anthropologists, were drawn to these ideas because they depicted culture as universally human, but not universally rankable, racially predetermined or inherently more or less sophisticated.

Alfred Kroeber, left, photographed with the last known member of the Yahi tribe in 1911.
Wikimedia Commons

For example, it was common in the late 19th century for expansionists to justify their imperialist ambitions with “scientific” evidence that Native Americans were culturally inferior. They pointed to language: Native Americans, they claimed, didn’t have words for the passage of time. For this reason, they couldn’t grasp a complex concept like history.

But Kroeber and his colleagues pointed out the Hopi did have a complex way of reckoning time. They just didn’t count things, like days or hours, using the same terminology they might use to count men, or rocks or clouds, which are objects you can actually see. To the Hopi, a day is in no way like a rock. So it shouldn’t be treated as such.

Kroeber’s peers included African-American anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, Jewish linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir, and female scholars such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. All grappled with discrimination and cultural denigration.

In response, Kroeber was compelled to write that history, geography and the environment influenced cultural differences. No culture simply emerged naturally.

“Social agencies are so tremendously influential on every one of us,” he wrote, “that it is very difficult to find any test that, if distinctive racial faculties were inborn, would fairly reveal the degree to which they are inborn.”

The only reason, according to Kroeber, that someone would insist on innate differences between human population would be to preserve the status quo: societies built on racial discrimination and colonialism.

‘But does it make them think?’

Throughout her childhood in Berkeley, California, Ursula Le Guin was exposed to these ideas. They very likely formed the basis of her worldview.

Her writing was never simply about creating a magical or strange world. It was about crafting a laboratory to play with identities – race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or class – in a way that forced readers to think about how cultural prejudice colored their views of other people.

“Entertaining them is all well and good,” she told New York Times reporter John Wray, “but does it make them think?”

With Le Guin, it always struck me that the point of her imagined universes was precisely to show that nothing human was universal, and that what was “alien” was only a matter of perspective.

In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin tackled the idea of gender norms. Here, I think she was channeling Margaret Mead’s breakthrough study “Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies,” in which Mead was able to demonstrate that gender norms can significantly diverge across cultures.

In “The Word for World Is Forest,” Le Guin didn’t simply pen an environmentalist fable about the destruction of a forest and its people. She built off the insights of indigenous scholars like Vine Deloria Jr., who put native peoples’ voices and worldviews at the center of the indigenous rights movement. In “The Dispossessed,” she contrasts the different political systems of two neighboring worlds not to argue which one is best, per se, but to show that in order for these systems to exist, humans need to actively participate in and reproduce them.

In 2015 I planned an anthropology class that I hoped could use speculative fiction and fantasy as a way to understand basic concepts in cultural anthropology. The class was built around Kroeber and Le Guin.

A mutual friend gave my syllabus to Le Guin, and she wrote to me. She suggested some other works to include and seemed to appreciate the concept of the course.

The Conversation“I think my pa would be tickled,” she wrote, “that he and I have ended up on the same [syallabus].”

Philip W. Scher, Professor of Anthropology and Folkore, University of Oregon

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Ursula K Le Guin’s strong female voice challenged the norms of a male-dominated genre



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Once and Future Podcast

Dimitra Fimi, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Hermaphrodite beings, dragon women, ambivalent utopias and sympathetic magic. Just a tiny taste of the fantasy and science fiction worlds created by Ursula K Le Guin, who has died at the ripe age of 88.

Le Guin challenged everything that came before and opened up new ways of doing fantasy and science fiction, but she was also a poet, essayist, historical fiction writer, and children’s writer. In 2017 she was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters after having won numerous awards, including the Hugo (voted by fans) and Nebula (voted by writers) awards for a single science fiction book twice.

Ursula K Le Guin in 2010.
K Kendall, CC BY-SA

She submitted her first short story for publication at the age of 11, and continued writing prolifically until recently. Her latest book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, a collection of essays about everything, from writing to ageing, was published in December 2017.

She was a strong female voice of dissent within male-dominated genres. She challenged race stereotypes in fantasy and science fiction. She had a long-lasting influence on a younger generation of writers. Le Guin’s work has been iconic for a while, studied at universities, loved by readers, praised by critics.

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Anthropological roots and Taoist echoes

Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists. Her father, Alfred Kroeber, established the Anthropology Department at Berkeley and her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote the biography of the last remaining “wild Indian” in the US. Le Guin’s alternative worlds were anthropological at their core. Instead of medievalesque hierarchies and politics, kings, knights and “small folk”, her worlds are populated by societies that seem tribal. In her Earthsea cycle, magic is “primitive”, ritualistic and shamanic, connected to the power of language. “True names” can summon and control people, animals, matter, and knowing them gives access to power that can become perilous.

Celebrated: Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle.
Amazon

In The Left Hand of Darkness, society on the ice planet of Gethen revolves around partly familial, partly tribal groups called “hearths” – and expulsion means sure death from cold. In Always Coming Home, alongside the main narrative, we get ethnographic notes about the customs, myths and rituals of the Kesh tribe.

Principles and beliefs associated with Taoism were also central to Le Guin’s imaginative fiction: non-action, living harmoniously with the self and the universe, respecting the natural rhythms of life. The ying-yang symbol of the balance of opposites is reflected in the “equilibrium” which holds everything together in Earthsea. As Master Hand says: “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” The same symbol is a powerful metaphor in the harmonious symmetries of The Left Hand of Darkness: male and female, hot and cold, fear and courage.

These elements make Le Guin’s worlds less binary, less based on conflict and resolution, and more mystical, spiritual and – ultimately – refreshingly different to expected norms in science fiction and fantasy. My students often arrive at the surprising realisation that “nothing much happens” in The Left Hand of Darkness. Equally, the Earthsea books don’t focus so much on the standard fantasy trope of defeating a Dark Lord in a great battle, but on changing attitudes and prejudices. The slower pace of Le Guin’s books are part of their success. In a world of fast rhythms and small attention spans, this is a major achievement.

Challenging race and gender norms

But Le Guin’s beautifully crafted prose also had a sharp edge. She consciously set off to question what came before her in fantasy and science fiction, especially in terms of race and gender. She was outspoken about the “colour scheme” of her Earthsea series. She wrote:

I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now.

Ged, the main protagonist of the Earthsea cycle, has copper-brown colouring (emulating the Native American complexion), while the white-skinned Kargs are the main antagonists for most of the series. Similarly, in The Left Hand of Darkness the only character from Earth is a black man, and everybody else in the book is “Inuit (or Tibetan) brown”.

Left Hand of darkness: multi award-winner.
Amazon

As for gender, is there a better example of a “thought experiment” in challenging norms in science fiction than the genderless world of Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness? Creating an androgynous people, who only become male or female once a month in order to procreate, gave Le Guin the opportunity to write the iconoclastic sentence: “The king was pregnant”, and to also question how language shapes our prejudices.

Even when many later feminist critics claimed that the book hadn’t gone far enough in interrogating sexism, Le Guin publicly admitted in a revised essay that they were right, and that she had not allowed space for homosexuality in her fictional world. To criticise your own work 20 years after publication takes guts and a unflinching belief in your principles.

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As for Earthsea, she took it one step further. When it dawned on her that
female magic had been excluded from Earthsea, she returned to her earlier work and changed everything, but without disrupting the coherence and consistency of her originally conceived imaginary world. That is a sure sign of a master in the genre who was able to see her own younger self as entrapped in the cultural and historical moment of writing.

The ConversationUrsula K Le Guin has taught us a different way of reading, a different way of thinking. If you haven’t read Le Guin yet, may I suggest a short story that encapsulates a lot of her political and social concerns, the masterful (if rather disturbing) The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. An imaginary world in miniature, and simultaneously a powerful and memorable “thought experiment”. A micro-capsule of Le Guin’s brilliance. She will be missed.

Dimitra Fimi, Senior Lecturer in English, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Farewell Ursula Le Guin – the One who walked away from Omelas



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Fantasy and science fiction author Ursula Le Guin has died, aged 88.
© 2014 Jack Liu

Christopher Benjamin Menadue, James Cook University

Author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin has been the subject of critical debate, analysis and discussion for generations. She died this week at the age of 88.

Le Guin published her first paid work April in Paris in the September 1962 issue of the magazine Fantastic Stories of the Imagination – and I am the proud owner of an original copy. I am a lifelong Le Guin fan, but also an academic exploring how science fiction is a cultural artefact that acts as a lens on changing attitudes and specific issues of its time. For me, Le Guin hit the sweet spots of her time powerfully and frequently.

Le Guin explored what it is to be human, faults and all, and the impact and influence of her work is undeniable in the world of fantasy and science fiction.




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A fantasy writer for all ages

I first encountered Le Guin as a child through the Earthsea Cycle, and it set the bar high for what I considered ever after to be good fantasy literature, leaving me disappointed by many otherwise quite respectable authors.

A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive wizarding school, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovered is inextricably linked to him) and that he later defeats.

Tehanu Frontispiece.
Charles Vess 2016

If this sounds familiar, you’re not the first to note it. Regarding the story of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin didn’t say that J.K. Rowling “ripped me off” in her Harry Potter series, but felt that Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.

In the Earthsea series, we are introduced to the complex responsibilities of becoming an adult, and asked to consider the values of life and the nature of death. It’s heavy, but significant and humanly realistic reading for a teenager.

Professionalism and style

Le Guin was fiercely protective and supportive of other authors. In 1973, she made a humorous critique of the problems faced by writers trying to make their worlds fantastical and strange in From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, encouraging and emphasising the importance of appropriate style.

Style is something Le Guin seemed to be able to master effortlessly and consistently. I consider her short story Semley’s Necklace – first published in 1964 and later included in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters – to be the finest of its kind in fantasy writing, its crystalline prose equal to Semley’s tragic fate.

Le Guin maintained an interest in encouraging writers and sharing her art. I have an original and much-thumbed copy of the elegantly titled (and naturally masterfully written) Steering the Craft: a 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, published in 1998: it didn’t make me a better writer, but it made me respect and appreciate the craft of writing.

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, waxed lyrical about Earthsea. He was one of a range of famous admirers including Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and Billy Bragg who have been tweeting their sorrow.

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On human nature, science, ethics and duty

For me, Le Guin has been such a powerful influence in science fiction and fantasy literature that I can’t imagine how it might have developed without her.

My own much loved, much lent copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (Granada Publishing, 1973).
Christopher Benjamin Menadue, Author provided

The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, inspired and informed a generation of gender writing in fantasy and science fiction. Yet, in her 1976 introduction to this novel, Le Guin maintained that androgyny was not what she considered the theme of the book – it was more to do with essential human feelings about fidelity and betrayal. Her employment of what were to become tropes of science fiction and fantasy was in service of the story, not the other way around, and this was a characteristic of her work.

More than many other author, she employed language, culture and concept in service of writing significant stories about the condition of being human.

Where writer Philip K Dick might be considered the expert of the “what if” scenario in science fiction, for me Le Guin is the expert at “what is?” She asked questions about our nature, aims and desires. She was consistently writing at the coalface of cultural change, or anticipating it.




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Her short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, written in 1973 is a devastating, slow-burn exposition of the implications of taking the utilitarian route in our exploitative relationships with other people.

The power of this writing has only increased with time, as we become more aware of “ethical outsourcing” and labour inequalities. These are portrayed in the film The Last Train Home, where the lives of those in the “developed world” become more comfortable, but at the expense of people we don’t know and can’t see.

The Dispossessed, published in 1974, was my introduction to a reader-friendly explanation of comparative ideologies – I suspect it was the same for many people.

But it was also a story about scientists, and the duty they have to be responsible, ethical and honest. It is another very human story in which Le Guin skillfully portrays the difficulties of presenting complex concepts to an unwelcoming world – something that is still pertinent in an age of climate change denial, anti-vaccination lobbying and fake news.

Le Guin was not a universal fan of scientific progress, but always took a human perspective. She was horrified by the “deal with the devil” of the Google book digitisation project, which although a great technological innovation, she recognised as a potential assault on the rights of authors.

Fantasy and science fiction author Ursula Le Guin.
Copyright Marian Wood Kolisch

Le Guin was a prolific novelist, and I only realise how small a proportion of her work my collection includes when I look look her up on the Internet Science Fiction Database.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Le Guin consistently wrote thoughtful and artful science fiction and fantasy throughout her life, without becoming fixed in any particular style.

Like Ged in Earthsea, she matured gracefully and elegantly with age, and continued to be powerful force and influence in the world of science fiction and fantasy writing.

The ConversationThe world has lost a great and influential writer and humanist. When I heard the news of her death I was heartbroken.

Christopher Benjamin Menadue, PhD Candidate, Literature and Society, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.