Le Guin Adds Feminist Edge to Science Fiction
In The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, Ursula K. Le Guin '51 describes a man's uneasy journey from his home world of Annares to the nearby Urras. The protagonist travels from an anarchist society where all is shared to a world of sharp class distinction--and finds perfection in neither.
At Radcliffe, Le Guin, then Ursula Kroeber, found a world like Urras--and spent years trying to overcome its teaching.
"I got much too good of an education in how to be part of an elite. If that's what you want to be, great. But if you don't, then it takes a lot of unlearning," Le Guin says.
While avoiding the stigma of elitism in her day-to-day life, the bestselling author's work has brought her into an elite group of writers. Le Guin is one of the most successful science fiction authors of all time, both critically and commercially. She has won the annual Hugo and Nebula awards five times. Her young adult series beginning with The Wizard of Earthsea has won the Newbery Silver Medal and four separate Children's Book of the Year awards. More than three million copies of her books are in print, and they include children's stories, poetry collections, and even a guide to writing that analyzes authors like Mark Twain, Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, and her favorite, Virginia Woolf.
Le Guin is also one of the few science fiction writers to achieve widespread literary recognition outside the sometimes insular sci-fi and fantasy community. Kurt Vonnegut described the problem while looking back at the publication of his first novel, _The Sirens of Titan_. "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since," he wrote, "and I would like out, particularly because so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."
LeGuin, however, has no regrets about beginning her career with science fiction.
"The fantasy community is wonderful for a young writer. There's so much mutual support," she says.
While Le Guin is still involved in some fantasy, working on the sixth book in the Earthsea series, she continues to expand her range and will soon be publishing a translation of Spanish poems by Gabriela Mistral, the recent Nobel Prize laureate.
She says she'll never concede to having a favorite among all her work, finding the question "a bit like asking a mama who her favorite kid is." However, she says the recent republication of Always Coming Home--a mélange of fables, poems, anthropology and myth--made her proud. She calls the work "a strange, personal book."
Anthropology and myth, clearest in the stories of Always Coming Home, play a part in nearly all of Le Guin's work. Her interest in both writing and anthropology can be traced to her family. She grew up in a household with a famous anthropologist father, Alfred L. Kroeber, and a successful writing mother, Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, whose most famous work, _Ishi, Last of His Tribe_, dealt with indigenous American Indians.
To her focus on questions of culture, Le Guin adds the Taoist principle of the interdependence of opposites, particularly gender, and says Taoism plays a part in her everyday life.
"While [the philosophy] must be partly innate, there was definitely some sort of deep affinity between what I felt and what I read," she says.
The Left Hand of Darkness, perhaps her most famous novel, details a character in an elaborately constructed society where the sex of inhabitants varies in cycles. The novel itself forms one part of an entire imagined universe fleshed out in an assemblage of novels and stories collectively called "The Hainish Cycle," where the origins of humanity are explained and 2500 years of future history are covered.
The close examination of gender roles in The Left Hand of Darkness came from one of the few woman science fiction writers of her era. But while she found success in a field dominated by men, Le Guin came from Harvard/Radcliffe at a time when gender roles were strictly defined. And she says something has been lost in the newer system where Radcliffe has merged completely into Harvard.
"To me it's a real grief...a real defeat, because I do think there's a real need for places that offer gender separativity," she says. "Women need places to be women."
Like the elitism that she tried to avoid, the demise of Radcliffe further alienated Le Guin from her alma mater.
"It could have been a women's institute-they could have left some presence at this extremely male institution, a feminine, female presence, but they did not. They chose to disappear, and I think that's the pity. That's kind of why I'm not there for my fiftieth [reunion]-Radcliffe isn't there for my fiftieth."