‘What if?’ is the question all fiction asks. Oedipus Rex: ‘What if someone unknowingly killed his father and married his mother?’ Emma: ‘What if someone accidentally encouraged her friend to fall in love with the man she didn’t know she loved herself?’ Science fiction generally deals in larger ‘what ifs?’ about the underlying rules that structure the world. These can be experiments in wish fulfilment: ‘What if we could live on other planets?’ Or they can be downright utopian: ‘What if time travel could eradicate poverty?’ They can also be admonitory: ‘What if a new world on a different planet went wrong in the same way the old world did?’ People who don’t like SF think of it as a genre obsessed with techy-fetishistic questions: ‘What if the C9-G series intergalactic cruiser with the Krank mod could go faster than lightspeed?’ Or as posing the kind of bloodless questions asked by philosophical thought experiments: ‘What would happen to personal identity if we could transport our bodies instantly across time and space, but at the cost of dying in one place and being precisely reconstructed elsewhere?’
SF sometimes poses that kind of question. But in the hands of an author like Ursula Le Guin, science fiction ‘isn’t really about the future’, as she put it in The Last Interview. ‘It’s about the present.’ It changes one or two structuring facts about the world as it is and asks: ‘What would humans do if this and this were true?’ The questions Le Guin asked were big, and her answers to them were subtle. Half a century ago she wondered: ‘What if people were gender-neutral most of the time, but changed between male and female at random when they came on heat, so that you could write sentences like “The King was pregnant”?’ (as in her Left Hand of Darkness). Or, ‘what if a capitalist planet had a moon on which there was a society with no laws and no private ownership?’ (as in her Dispossessed). Alongside these large questions her fiction also poses less visible challenges to its readers. Are you so unconsciously racist that you didn’t notice this woman or this wizard was brown-skinned? Didn’t you realise that the person you thought was an alien is actually from Earth?
For Le Guin these questions almost always led back to one core idea about people. They get stuff wrong even when they want to get it right, and the more they think they’re in control the worse the mistakes they’re likely to make. In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (first published in 1988 and now reissued with a thoughtful introduction by Donna Haraway), she described her writing as a ‘great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes … full of beginnings without ends … full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail and people who don’t understand’. Her modesty downplays how deeply her fiction gets inside the darker parts of the human mind.
The Lathe of Heaven (1971) is a typical instance of this. It’s a deliberately wonky wish-fulfilment fantasy, which asks: ‘What if our dreams came true?’ The hero, Orr, whose name is an invitation to think of the world as this ‘or’ that, has dreams with real-life consequences. He’s compelled to see a megalomaniac psychiatrist, Dr Haber, who realises that if he can manipulate Orr’s dreams he can get himself a better office. Then he realises that Orr’s dreams could change the world. He asks him to dream racism away. When Orr wakes up the next day everyone has turned grey. He makes Orr dream of peace on Earth. Orr’s unconscious, like a bad genie in a fairy tale, takes the instruction literally: he dreams that an alien attack on the moon unites the people of Earth against a common enemy. He asks Dr Haber: ‘What kind of monsters have you dredged up out of my unconscious mind, in the name of peace?’ The implied answer is that the monsters are always there; our desire to make the world a better place is shadowed by a tendency to make it worse. It’s not all bad: Orr eventually dreams that the aliens are rather cute turtle-like creatures, one of whom sells second-hand furniture and gives him a record: ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’. Eventually, Orr manages to dream away his power to change things, and restores reality to something like its old flawed self.
‘I have never written a plot-driven novel,’ Le Guin said. ‘I admire plot from a vast distance, with unenvious admiration. I don’t do it; never did it; don’t want to; can’t.’ She tended to write stories which include long journeys that loop back on themselves, where a hero thinks she’s getting somewhere new but actually (if she’s lucky) finds herself close to where she started out. The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction defines the novel as ‘a fundamentally unheroic kind of story. Of course the Hero has frequently taken it over, that being his imperial nature and uncontrollable impulse, to take everything over and run it while making stern decrees and laws to control his uncontrollable impulse to kill it.’
Her preferred form of fiction was loosely aggregative and largely non-linear, a collection of stuff about people trying to get on with things and with one another, rather than a killing fable. That led her to turn narratives of colonial expansion inside out and back to front, and to tell stories from the point of view of outsiders who don’t quite understand the world in which they find themselves. In The Word for World is Forest (1972), Le Guin’s little green men are not the ray-gun-toting hooligans of bad sci-fi comics but undersized furry dreamers, who (in an overt allegory of the Vietnam War) are taught how to kill by gun-toting humans, who want to deforest the green world.
Her best books are the first three Earthsea novels, which reached British audiences during the glory days of Puffin in the early 1970s. They had it all. An archipelago of islands in a world where there are dragons and wizards, sea voyages, dark worship of the powers of death. Writing for children pushed Le Guin slightly against her natural inclinations in three respects. It forced her to do plot. It also made her dampen the cultural relativism of her SF: Earthsea does have different peoples with different skin colours and different islands with their own cultures, but in a relatively low-key way. The main thing it did, though, was to enable her to draw on big Arthurian myths (dragons, kings-in-waiting, multiple Merlins), which sent her imagination into overdrive. Writing for children also had less liberating consequences: Earthsea has more conservative intellectual foundations than her writing for adults from the same period. Wizards of Earthsea get their power by speaking the Old Speech, or ‘the language of the making’, by which Earthsea and all in it were summoned into being in the first place. This remains the natural language of dragons, but can be learned by (male) wizards. The language-magic of Earthsea has its roots in the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, which Le Guin described as ‘my father’s favourite book’. She published an English version in 1997:
Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.
Wizards, like the Taoist sage, have to observe the balance of the whole rather than make use of the power of naming to dominate their world. Just as light is the left hand of darkness, so lighting a candle creates a shadow. The wizards in Earthsea look after goats, live chastely, have power but do not deploy it and always seek to keep the world in balance.
All except the hero – a word which always set Le Guin’s inner alarm-bell ringing – a young wizard of immense power called Ged. He made my ten-year-old self think: ‘Surely I could be a wizard.’ Ged shows off to a girl and to his rivals by attempting to bring an ancient beauty back from the dead. This releases from the underworld an unnamed dark horror that pursues him across the world. The thing is his shadow, ‘like a black beast, the size of a young child, though it seemed to swell and shrink; and it had no head or face, only the four taloned paws with which it gripped and tore.’ The moment when the id-thing attacks Ged and rips apart his familiar, Otak (which I visualised as a miniature otter with a ‘leaf-brown tongue’) was – forget Bambi’s mum – the darkest moment in any book I’d read. Maybe there were better career options than wizard after all. The overt lesson about male pride harming more than just itself, well, maybe male pride stopped me seeing that right away; but the animating idea behind A Wizard of Earthsea, that if we mess up we can release parts of ourselves that are determined to destroy us, made it seem worlds more grown-up than anything I’d yet encountered. Even in Earthsea the question ‘what if there is magic?’ prompts the further question ‘what if people abuse it?’ Le Guin denied having read Jung before she invented Ged’s shadow: ‘It’s not Jung’s shadow, it’s my shadow.’ But the idea that there is a thing out there which is both part of oneself and one’s most lethal enemy was the late 20th century version of the self-denying heroines of earlier children’s literature: the moral had changed from ‘being good means giving up what you want’ to ‘indulging a desire for power brings out the darkness that’s inside you, kids’.
The final volume of the first trilogy, The Farthest Shore (1972), ends with Ged going deep into the world of the dead to seal up a hole through which the vitality of the living world is leaching away. The gap was made by an evil wizard called Cob, who had ‘an unmeasured desire for life’. He reduces the inhabitants of Earthsea to zombies by offering them eternal life. The atheist Le Guin saw the reluctance to accept death as the root of most evil. As her version of the Tao puts it, ‘To live till you die/is to live long enough.’ Ged expends all his power closing the gap in the underworld, and makes the world whole again through a massive and self-destructive orgasm of magical potency: ‘For a moment a spasm of dry sobbing shook him. “It is done,” he said, “it is all gone.”’ The world is healed but he loses all his power.
The advantage that children’s fiction has over other types of writing is its near irresistible appeal to the reader to identify directly with its characters. This gives it a kind of directive power which fiction for adults tends to avoid: the greatest children’s fiction can lead its readers into a dark hall with dim mirrors on the wall, which leave you wondering where or who you are. Even now, reading about Ged’s loss of power, provokes the same temptation I felt when I was ten – to see myself as him: surely there is nothing here a grumpy late-middle-aged man hasn’t felt, I think privately. You see the world change around you in ways you don’t quite get, you fight it, feel the power go, and then decide the only thing you can still do is look after the goats – at which Ged turns out to be pretty good. But always in Le Guin there is a sharp ironical turn against any reader who wants to be a hero. Ged without his powers is a self-pitying mess who doesn’t realise that he still knows what he knows, even if he can no longer control the winds with words. And anyway, Le Guin makes us ask, what’s wrong with looking after goats?
There was a big gap between the first Earthsea trilogy (1968-73) and the final books: Tehanu (1990), Tales from Earthsea (2001) and The Other Wind (2001). During that period Le Guin thought about many things, including sexual politics. The Gandalf model of wizardly power – the idea, dumbly replicated by J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, that asexual male mages hold the world in balance – was never compatible with Le Guin’s deep unease about overt expressions of power. That incompatibility made her ask questions about the foundations of Earthsea. The wizards on the island of Roke have become blinkered bachelor dons, who treat all women like faculty wives: they simply refuse to hear them when they say things that are true. Meanwhile the Old Speech, with its direct equation between name, thing and power, begins to fade away. When Le Guin was asked in 2001 if she intended the later books to retract the earlier Earthsea series she gave a characteristically tart response: ‘If the second trilogy invalidated, or retracted, or revoked the first one, I wouldn’t have written it.’
It isn’t surprising that Le Guin made Earthsea change. What’s surprising is that it took her so long to do it. She had a PhD in French literature and was married to a historian of France. She must have heard the wave of post-structuralist theory gathering force well before it hit the West Coast in the early 1970s and washed away any residue of the magical belief that things and their signifiers were united by intrinsic bonds. And a complex and multi-faceted feminism was foundational to her writing right from the start. In the later Earthsea books she doesn’t dismantle her earlier world, but allows it to change so that she can explore a heroism (more often displayed by women) of resilience. She also stripped away the Tolkien-style male mage model of children’s fiction, which has such a strong magic of its own it takes time to escape its spell. By going beyond it in the second Earthsea series Le Guin was able to direct a whole array of ‘what if?’ questions against some of the conventions of children’s fantasy. What if you don’t need heroic quests? What if keeping going and tending children through damage and disaster and getting home is the form of heroism that matters most? What if girls can be dragons? These questions led to the creation in the later Earthsea books of two perfectly realised female characters: Tehanu – a girl scorched by fire and maimed by men, whose dry whispering voice makes her Le Guin’s most vivid creation – and her protector Tenar, who takes over from Ged as the central figure of the later books, and who is one of the strongest representations in children’s literature of an ageing woman who doesn’t ‘do’ very much beyond hanging on in there, but who nonetheless becomes the pivot of an entire world.
The big book that came between the Earthsea of the 1970s and that of the 1990s was Always Coming Home (1985), which Le Guin described as ‘one of my most neglected and most central books’. Like many works in which an author invests too much, Always Coming Home reveals a lot about Le Guin without showing her at her best. It attempts to describe an imagined world as fully as possible while trying to do without plot. It’s set in a future, probably post-apocalyptic California, where there are multiple tribal cultures, whose dances and poems and myths and music, whose languages and sexual mores, are all described at length by an anthropological observer. Both Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists, and her mother wrote an immensely successful book about the last known member of the Native American Yahi people. In Always Coming Home, Le Guin is remaking the family trade as fiction. The Kesh are gently pastoral, while the Condor tribe is warlike. There are massive but not overtly hostile data hubs in the City which operate separately from the small ritualised communities in the Valley of the Kesh, but the novel doesn’t present this neo-pastoral world as the revenge of nature on crazy overreaching technology.
Le Guin hit back at an interviewer who suggested the world of Always Coming Home was ‘sentimentally nostalgic’, calling his terms ‘ideological and self-contradictory’. She was attempting to create a non-industrial civilisation in all its dancing, moon-following cyclical intricacy. The figure of the spiral, folding inwards and moving upwards, dominates the architecture and geography of Always Coming Home as though to reassure readers that there is a shape to it all. But the novel really is the carrier bag theory of fiction in (in)action – a great baggy aggregate of stuff. If you love it, you’ll love it; but if you don’t, you won’t. The protagonist of ‘Stone Telling’, the narrative strand of the novel, is not really its centre, but she is ‘always coming home’ in the sense of never quite arriving home or knowing where it is. She moves between different locations and tribal conventions, through environments that are constraining to women and others which are less so. Following a spiral, you return to the same position in its circumference, but never to the same point in time or space. As Le Guin said in an interview: ‘Homecoming may not be such an easy visit, after all. The world is changing. It is a spiral. That is kind of the point.’
The primary moral law of Le Guin’s fiction, that fully realised power creates its own destructive counter-currents, operates to her disadvantage in Always Coming Home. The world of the Kesh is too completely imagined. Their favourite recipes could probably be found buried somewhere in a drawer among Le Guin’s papers. Reading about this sort of fictional world is a bit like watching someone play a board game while making up the rules: the temptation is to tiptoe quietly away and leave them to it. Fiction needs the unruly energies of indeterminacy, of being partly inside the mind of the reader, of trying to hold in check or wrestle with earlier fictions that it doesn’t quite want to become, of being only in an illusory way autonomous. To put that less abstractly, the constraints of genre fiction, of SF and children’s literature, were good for Le Guin: they forced her imagination not only to make a world, but to throw stories at it. Narrative matters in fiction because when things happen the structures of an imagined world have to flex a bit, and that can test their resilience and generate new energies.
Le Guin’s last full length novel before her death in 2018 was Lavinia (2008). This retells Virgil’s Aeneid – the ultimate colonial fiction, and the underpinning of a huge number of quest-based SF narratives – from the point of view of the woman whom Aeneas eventually marries. Virgil’s Lavinia is little more than technicolour blush and golden hair. Le Guin disliked the language of battles and dominance, and Lavinia is not an attempt to occupy or rewrite Virgil’s poem. It doesn’t hold back from sticking it to the man, but always does so with humour: Le Guin makes Lavinia a brunette, and she also makes her an agent who, like Tenar in the later Earthsea books, has a strength of purpose that matters far more for the survival of civilisations than what the boys get up to with their swords. After Aeneas’ death she protects her son, Silvius, from Ascanius, Aeneas’ son by his earlier wife, who is unable to live up to his father’s example. The imperial epic becomes a study in resilience, chiefly set in the period after a battle that Le Guin had staked out (though she would not like the territorial metaphor) as her own.
Lavinia is another study in ‘what if?’ What if the Aeneid continued? What if it was completed and co-written by a woman? The dying Virgil appears to Lavinia and says: ‘I am a wraith … My body is lying on the deck of a ship sailing from Greece to Italy … or else I am a false dream.’ He’s not a guide or guardian like Dante’s Virgil, but a man who’s about to die and who knows he got some things right and some things wrong. In retelling her own story, Lavinia, who knows the customs of her tribe much better than Virgil does, often corrects the poet on points of fact, but always acknowledges the open spaces that Virgil left in his unfinished work, and which enable her freedom. In a discussion about Jung, Le Guin said: ‘My animus, what inspires me, is definitely male. People talk about muses – well, my muse ain’t no girl in a filmy dress, that’s for sure. But of course this is all metaphor.’ When asked what was ‘the most constant theme in her novels’, she replied, without stopping to think twice: ‘Marriage’. Lavinia is the product of an intellectual marriage between Lavinia and her ghostly creator, Virgil. The Aeneid ended with Aeneas killing Turnus in a burst of rage, and by this act of violence he wins Lavinia. Le Guin continues the story so that the killing of Turnus remains a deep source of misery for Aeneas. He becomes another Ged, whose heroism inheres in living on after he thought the heroic job was done. He eventually dies when he re-enacts, and Lavinia in effect rewrites, the end of the Aeneid. He has another adversary at his mercy. He remembers Turnus and so spares this new enemy, who then kills him. Against this background of reiterated acts of violence, spiralling not out of control but round and back on themselves in a cycle at once retributive and redemptive, Lavinia gets on with the business of raising a child, living with change, following the way. It is a Taoist Virgil as well as a feminist Virgil.
Lavinia is imaginatively of a piece with the world of Earthsea, where men don’t so much mess up as try to make things right but often make things worse by doing so. At the end of The Farthest Shore, while Ged is battling to close the hole in the underworld, his companion, Arren, the future king of Earthsea, repeatedly attempts to kill the spectre of the dark magician Cob, whose desire for eternal life has left him no more than a shadow. ‘The blade made a great wound, severing Cob’s spine. Black blood leapt out lit by the sword’s own light. But there is no good in killing a dead man; and Cob was dead, years dead. The wound closed, swallowing its blood.’ So Arren strikes again. This is a fantasy of male heroism locked into compulsion, heaving swords around when the real power has migrated elsewhere. To that fantasy Le Guin added a layer of her own, which is also a moral vision. Civilisation isn’t about conquering planets or travelling faster than the speed of light. It’s about keeping going even when you think you’re lost, recognising that living means keeping children alive, growing fruit trees, watching things change and tending the goats.
Listen to Colin Burrow discuss this piece on the LRB Podcast