By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Ursula Le Guin is one of the most prolific authors of utopian science fiction. And she’s not only interested in thinking about utopia; she explores an incredible variety of possible utopias that deal with gender, society, and much more. It’s that openness, that welcoming tone to her work that has made Le Guin such a major force in late-20th and early-21st-century literature.
Science Fiction as Descriptive
Le Guin approaches various fictional worlds and situations with an open mind, drawing upon disciplines like physics, anthropology, and fine arts, imagining worlds in which people attempt all kinds of strategies of governance, including no governance at all. She has actually written quite a lot about how science fiction works, with her most famous statement coming, perhaps from the introduction to her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, where she says no matter how far removed it seems from our current situation, science fiction is always descriptive, rather than predictive.
She’s funny about it, too. “The method and results of fictional prediction much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what might happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation.” It’s so true, isn’t it? Most uchronias—those societies set in the future—have been horrifying dystopias.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Le Guin doesn’t write horrifying dystopias. But she doesn’t write straightforward utopias, either. This is, after all, the thinker who brought us The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, with the child in the basement paying the price for utopia. And nearly everything she writes—whether science fiction or fantasy—has utopian elements, which means it’s almost impossible to choose what to discuss.
One of the most complex aspects of life that she introduces is the idea of gender and its fluidity. This idea is most extensively explored in The Left Hand of Darkness. In the novel, she introduces the idea of a planet named Gethen on which gender is unidentified most of the time, except during a particular time called kemmer. At this time, the Gethenians take on either male or female gender roles, occupying either at different kemmers.
The narrator, named Genly, is a visitor from another planet who is male and struggles with the idea of this fluid or non-permanent gender identity. Why would Le Guin make it so hard for Genly to accept Gethenian gender on its own terms? What is she saying here?
Learn more about feminist utopias.
Part of what Le Guin is saying is that accepting difference, no matter how open we are to it, is hard. Physicist and gender theorist Evelyn Fox Keller discusses this idea in her essay, How Gender Matters; or, Why It’s So Hard for us to Count Past Two. Keller argues that gender and science have both been thought about largely in binary terms: male and female, hard science and soft science.
If we could get beyond these binaries, Keller says, “We might discover new kinds of stories in ourselves and in nature. We might discover what we never imagined possible—games that require us to count past two, or between one and two.”
Think about how the gay community became the LGBT—lesbian gay bisexual transgendered—community and then the LGBTQ community—adding queer—and now the LGBTQA community, where the A stands for a bunch of different things in different contexts: in some communities it stands for asexual or aromantic.
But in others, it stands for allies or advocates—people whose own gender identities are fairly traditional but who nonetheless strongly support this community. And not just support as in everyone deserves equal rights. Support as in “I think the presence and strength of an LGBTQ community makes society better.”
Learn more about Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
Le Guin and Gender
Le Guin’s novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, came out decades before Keller’s essay and before the mainstreaming of LGBTQ rights. Le Guin, like other feminist science fiction writers, is clearly using sci-fi and utopia to explore these issues. Gender is a major factor in shaping human identity, whether that’s because there’s something essentially different about girls and boys from birth, or whether it’s because we tend to treat men and women differently, creating socially constructed but nonetheless very real differences between them. Therefore, changing our views on gender and sexuality is hard, even if we are very open to accepting others’ ways of life and choices.
Thinking About the Self
A lot of us might think it would be great for people to see past our gender, our race, our age, whatever markers of identity we think are most apparent about us. And in some ways, maybe it would be great. But Le Guin doesn’t just leave it at that. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly also ponders about how difficult it is to think of himself without a gender identity.
Le Guin thus says that it isn’t only hard to move past gendered thinking about others; it’s hard to imagine being seen without the evidence of the communities we belong to—communities of shared gender, race, age, et cetera. It’s almost like laying yourself bare, as if, in a way, those categories create protection for our individual identities.
Common Questions about Ursula Le Guin’s Science Fiction
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin says no matter how far removed it seems from our current situation, science fiction is always descriptive, rather than predictive.
Le Guin doesn’t write horrifying dystopias. But she doesn’t write straightforward utopias, either. Nearly everything she writes—whether science fiction or fantasy—has utopian elements, but are not straightforward but rather complex.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin explores the idea of gender fluidity. The novel is set on a planet named Gethen on which gender is unidentified most of the time, except during a particular time called kemmer. At this time, the Gethenians take on either male or female gender roles, occupying either at different kemmers.