Imagining a better world

January 30, 2018

Author Ursula Le Guin made us feel like a better world was possible, even if we didn't know exactly what it would be like, writes Christopher Zimmerly-Beck.

THERE ARE few things more restorative right now than reading the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. Her writing offers a temporary reprieve from the terrors and traumas of our current political moment of soaring wealth inequality and the daily struggle to resist the belligerent menace of Donald Trump and the ruling class he works for.

The fantasy novelist who authored more than 20 novels, in addition to collections of poetry and children's books, passed away at the age of 88 on January 22.

Le Guin was one of us--a radical thinker whose life's work examined both the ugliness and beauty of our world. She upended literary conventions and embraced the fantastic to tell stories that compelled readers of all ages to rethink their basic assumptions about our society.

She was a feminist and maybe even an anarchist. Her work touched the lives of countless readers, many of whom took away the idea that another world--a better world--might in fact be possible, even if we don't know exactly how to get to that world or what it will look like.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

Like the people at the end of Le Guin's famous short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," the people who make the revolution will decide that a better world is possible and set out to find it.

AT EVERY stage of my life, Le Guin's work has been with me, starting with A Wizard of Earthsea when I was 11 years old. I took refuge in that book. Like many working-class kids in the U.S., I remember having had a sense of powerlessness when I was young, but Earthsea, unlike The Hobbit or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was a story where words had power.

As I grew older, I realized that Earthsea did much more than boost my confidence. Published in 1968, the liberation politics of that time are embedded into it. With its brown-skinned protagonists and decidedly non-Tolkien-inspired setting, A Wizard of Earthsea serves as an alternative to the Eurocentric fantasies full of the anxieties that author Michael Moorcock has called "bourgeois bugaboo."

As the Earthsea series progressed, Ursula Le Guin underwent a process she described as "catching up with my feminism."

In her words, she approached the later books by "looking at [the series] from an entirely different point of view. Instead of looking at it from above, from those in a position of power, I looked at it from beneath, from the position of the powerless."

In doing this, she brought gender and women's oppression to the foreground. Her commitment to looking at the world and her work "from below" stands out as one example of why the left should celebrate Le Guin.

Le Guin was closely aligned with anarchist politics. In the 1960s, she was involved in activism, including opposition to the Vietnam War, and began to identify with pacifism and anarchism. She immersed herself in a broad range of writing, including work by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and even Peter Kropotkin.

While her work often celebrates anarchism, Le Guin dodged labeling herself as such in a 2016 interview, somewhat halfheartedly describing herself as a "bourgeois housewife." Regardless of how she viewed her own politics, she was certainly sympathetic toward anarchism as a set of ideals and practices.

Le Guin had a spiritual component to her life as well. She practiced Taoism and Buddhism, themes that run throughout her work alongside and in concert with her interest in all things anthropological.

She had a fascination with utopia, often creating them in her stories and then fracturing them to show us some ugliness about our own world. Short stories like "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" and novels like The Dispossessed argued against passive acceptance of exploitation and oppression.

Her impact on popular culture is immense. Author Neil Gaiman credits reading Le Guin with transforming him into a feminist. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon has called her the best writer of her generation, and Zadie Smith said, "Le Guin writes as well as any non-'genre' writer alive." Author and Marxist China Mieville observed that Le Guin had a "slow-burning fury at injustices" and" a very sharp and unremitting diagnosis of things in the social world."

THIS "SLOW-burning fury" was on display in 2014 when Le Guin was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation. Her speech quickly went viral and was turned into memes on social media:

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.

Le Guin defended art, and books specifically, as being more than just commodities, and she called out the "commodity profiteers" of Amazon and big publishing houses that try to sell the work of authors as if it was "deodorant." Le Guin defended genre literature and challenged its relegation to the back of bookstores while "the so-called realists" are held up as true literature.

The National Book Award speech wasn't the first or last time Le Guin used her voice and position to challenge those in power. She refused to support sci-fi/fantasy anthologies that only published male authors.

After the 2016 election, she wrote about the despair and frustration felt by so many in that moment. She defended Standing Rock protesters, comparing that struggle to the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama.

As we braced ourselves for the beginning of the Trump presidency, Le Guin wrote, "I know what I want. I want to live with courage, with compassion, in patience, in peace." And she did.

I already miss Ursula K. Le Guin. Let's read her work, immerse ourselves in the worlds she created, and celebrate the lessons she has to teach--like looking at the world "from below," being bold enough to imagine things differently than they are today, aspiring toward courage and compassion, and striving for a world free of capitalism so that peace can actually be possible.

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