Earthsea is Earth

By Razib Khan | November 4, 2012 1:30 am

Slate has a respectful take on Ursula K. Le Guin‘s oeuvre by Choire Sicha up. By way of surveying her contributions to the domain of fiction the author takes issue with those who would elevate ‘literary fiction,’ a term whose boundaries seem to lack distinction or clarity, above ‘genre.’ In this case Le Guin’s career has been marked by extensive forays into the genres of fantasy and science fiction, and speculative fiction more broadly. But while we’re castigating the narrowness or particularity of the aficionados of literary fiction, it should be admitted that Le Guin herself does not always deny the value of parochialism.

Her Leftist politics pervades many of her works, implicitly and explicitly (just as one can not but help sense Jerry Pournelle’s conservatism in the texture of his narrative). But perhaps more subtly important for the character of her fiction Le Guin has emphasized her lack of interest in the details of the physical sciences which suffuses ‘hard science ficiton.’ Rather, her creations manipulate and tease apart filaments of the social assumptions and values we take as normative (e.g., how many other science fiction writers would admit to being influenced by post-structuralism?). This is not so surprising from the daughter of the ‘Dean of American Anthropologists.’ I only point this out to suggest that it is not coincidental that Ursula K. Le Guin often comes up for special praise outside of genre circles, as she is not a crafter of the prototypical science fiction or fantasy.* For a piece of literature which more reflects the garb of conventional science fiction, but written with attention to style and psychological depth, I might suggest Gregory Benford’s depressing Great Sky River.

But Sicha’s broadside against hegemony of literary fiction proponents does make me reflect on the power of relativism and the ‘leveling’ impulse which is so strong in our era. Stories are powerful. Fiction is just one form of story which humans gravitate toward (religion, music, and poetry are others). It is no surprise that we are preoccupied by magical engrossing tales. Whole civilizations can be defined by a story, such as the Iliad, the Bible, or the Mahabharata. Meanwhile the doyens of literary fiction are constantly demarcating their territory, and spreading the gospel of their acolytes. This is serious stuff.  The science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, who like Le Guin often receives mainstream accolades because of his prowess as a stylist, recalled having once driven a young bookstore clerk to tears by suggesting that a new work of serious fiction should be shelved in science fiction as well (because of its content).

And yet there are differences and distinctions. The problem with much of mainstream and genre fiction driven by commercial concerns is that it is the literary equivalent of junk food; tasty, but ephemeral. The pulp science fiction of the 1930s is of curiosity mostly for historical curiosity now (the exceptions are what we remember from the ‘Golden Age of Science Fiction,’ but this is a very small sliver of the total production). In contrast, H. G. Wells is relevant to this day, because of the groundbreaking nature of his work. Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel remain influential, even if few know of it, because of its role in the generation of subsequent works (e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Despite the populist trappings of much of the critique of literary fiction, I suspect that one of the major issues many have is that much of it will have as much lasting power as the latest Danielle Steel novel. In other words, it is not that literary fiction is elitist, it is that it isn’t often a good story. Perhaps an analogy might be nouveau cuisine which utilizes the latest molecular gastronomy to produce incredibly novel presentation…but just doesn’t taste very interesting in regards to flavor.

A civilization needs a story, we need unifying themes. But much of contemporary literary fiction isn’t providing those themes. Rather, the themes are the concerns and existential crises of upper middle class Westerners, struggling with the atomization of contemporary life. This isn’t Odysseus. Neither is it Krishna conferring with Arjuna. What we need is some heroic high literary fiction, which breaks free of the space between the ears, and operates more vigorously in the exterior domain.

* In her Earthsea novels conventional theistic religion is only found among the barbaric and marginal Kargs. This seems strange in a fantasy world, but there it is.

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Comments (18)

  1. Justin Loe

    Cormac McCarthy gets my vote, and his novel Blood Meridian is outstanding. Good read.

  2. ReasJack

    Hard to imagine a one-and-only god when the guy you’re having breakfast with can perform miracles.

  3. FredR

    I’d hate to see a civilization that builds its unifying themes on Blood Meridian’s nihilistic violence.

  4. April Brown

    I had recurring nightmares from my childhood years onward about Earthsea’s version of the wasteland (the land of the dead), and I didn’t even realize how powerful an inflence it was on me until she resolved it in some of the later sequels. Only now to be replaced with occasional panic attacks about the two Kargish children from the royal family left on a tiny island to die. And also that religious dystopia that she had Earth go through in some of the Hainish books.

    You’d think I’d just learn to stop reading her books, but no… I don’t know how much this speaks to Le Guin’s place providing grand unifying themes for modern society, but she’s been messing with my head since grade school. Brilliantly.

  5. Karl Zimmerman

    LeGuin isn’t that unusual for (non-pulp) science fiction in taking the science in her novels lightly. Octavia Butler (who also received mainstream plaudits), and Sherri S. Tepper (who did not) also broadly fit into the science fiction as social allegory movement. I could come up with a much longer list though, which can veer pretty far from “socio-political science fiction.” For example, Dan Simmons science fiction (particularly the Hyperion Cantos) is amazing work, but it’s not rigorous scientifically at all. I could say the same thing for (even for its time) Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.

    Hell, most of what’s called hard science fiction isn’t really all that hard. Greg Bear used to get lumped into the movement, even though the actual science in his novels was pretty thin (and usually wrong). Stephen Baxter is often considered to be hard science fiction, but outside of his =professional background his understanding of science is so limited I often recognize the popular science books he lifts from. The only hard science-fiction writer I’ve ever been genuinely challenged by is Greg Egan.

    In the end though, I think the division between hard and socio-political science fiction isn’t a real gulf. Most science fiction which aspires to be something greater than mere disposable adventure purposefully uses the setting to explore something which could not be easily explored through conventional settings. Perhaps this means allegory, or perhaps this means putting recognizably normal people into a decidedly not-normal circumstances. But I think, save for a precious few authors, you can’t escape humanity being at the core of the story, either as individuals (perhaps in funny costumes) or as a whole society.

  6. #5, the general points you make are valid. i think the issue with le guin is that she’s rather explicit about the lack of interest in the science backdrop. additionally, i do think even in cases like greg bear’s where the science is often thin there’s more of a detailed attention to local contingencies. perhaps a better case might be c. j. cherryh, whose science fiction/military adventures aren’t hard sf in a classic sense, but are pretty embedded in gadgets and planets. in contrast le guin’s backdrop fades into marginality. the world-building is very secondary.

    nevertheless, as you say it’s an imperceptible spectrum from gene wolfe to hal clement. the big difference from ‘literary fiction’ is that as sam delaney noted lit fiction tends to make individual psychological self-exploration the ends of all great works of fiction. this is not absent in great science fiction or fantasy, but it is rarely the totality of the product.

  7. Matt

    Yes, I don’t think she’s so unique in terms of her prime concern with social structure or politics, relative to a disinterest in hard sciences. Her disinterest maybe relatively large, but isn’t really the prime distinguishing factor of her work for me.

    Where she does differ from other writers is probably mostly in her kind of 60s-70s left-radicalish anthropology student worldview (I know she was, like a 30-40 year old woman then, but that was when she began being published).

    I can’t think of another sci-fi or fantasy writer with quite the same perspective, or who presented the (often implausible or crudely propagandistic, e.g. Kargs) societies, characters and concerns that she presented as a result of that.

  8. Karl Zimmerman

    7 –

    While I can’t think of many authors with her particular social perspective, some came close.

    Octavia Butler, for example, was much beloved by the academy, due to her being a black woman and writing about race and gender pretty explicitly. I actually think her work was some of the smartest on the “cultural left” of science fiction. Take the Xenogenesis series for example. On one hand, it is presented that humans are naturally violent and were destroying themselves, and thus an alien species benevolently stepped in to “save us.” On the other hand, there are clear parallels with colonialism, because the aliens (despite being nonviolent) are using humanity for their own ends, don’t want to give us independence back, and will ultimately destroy the Earth. Compare this to LeGuin in The Word for World is Forest, who simply made humans into the villains. It was a very smartly-written series. It’s a shame her later books felt a bit more like straight-up polemics.

    Another example, who I also outlined above, is Sheri S. Tepper. Every book she has written has been either about feminism, or involved heavy feminist leanings. Every single book involves one or more evil male straw-men who you are supposed to love to hate. Oddly, she was also considered somewhat persona non-grata among feminists for a time despite these themes, because in an early book of hers (The Gate To Women’s Country) she explicitly looked at a matriarchy which was succeeding by using eugenics to breed violent tendencies out of men. The society also used eugenics to eliminate homosexuality. I think this is the reason in a later book she decided to lean to nurture to an absurd degree (Sideshow where two main characters are conjoined twins who are raised as a male/female pair, and acculturate to this successfully.

    More recently, I’d say that Ken MacLeod is pretty clear leftist science fiction. His earliest series in particular (The Fall Revolution) is heavily influenced by Trotskyist thought.

  9. “The science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, who like Le Guin often receives mainstream accolades because of his prowess as a stylist, recalled having once driven a young bookstore clerk to tears by suggesting that a new work of serious fiction should be shelved in science fiction as well (because of its content).”

    One of Denver’s newest branch library has discarded the practice of shelving printed fictional material (other than children’s books) by genre. It simply puts the romances, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, mysteries, graphic novels, and “serious fiction” all on the shelves in alphabetical order by author’s name. The effect is really quite refreshing.

  10. ackbark

    Anyone know the book Delaney was annoying the clerk with?

  11. checked transcript. Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

  12. Joe

    I think what is fascinating about “Earthsea,” is” MAGIC” as “SCIENCE”. It follows rules and principles like those of physics including uncertainty. The same idea comes up in Niven’s “The Magic Goes Away” stories.

  13. ackbark

    Thanks, Razib. I’ve heard DeLillo was good for years without finding any particular angle to peak my curiosity.

  14. Ackbar:

    Prepare to be disappointed. It’s not one of his better ones and he’s overrated in general. YMMV. Atwood does a far better job as Literary author doing speculative fiction.

  15. ADL

    Don DeLillo. Oh lordy. I ploughed through some enormous tome of his years ago, on a recommendation from a friend, expecting/hoping all the time that *something* would eventually happen. It never did.

  16. Kaviani

    8- Excellent points per OB. I think Frank Herbert is the only male SF author who espoused the same essential philosophy on humanity (including the feminist ‘keystone’) without airing any liberal underwear. He scoffs pretty openly at liberalism in the Dune series without conservative bias. Taking the perspective of a god and superhumans can afford that, I suppose.

  17. Razib and Karl,

    Have either of you read any of Michael Flynn’s stuff:


    Highly recommend.

  18. Dan

    @7 Matt –

    Agreed. There is quite a bit of work out there of a fantastical / science fiction bent which nevertheless isn’t interested in being genre-fiction yet is unlike Le Guin’s work. Le Guin’s defining characteristic is absolutely in the political nature of her work. Personally, the works of hers that I’ve actually read recently (Lathe of Heaven, Left Hand) did not strike me as terribly crude politically. That’s actually unusual because her non-fiction political writings are incredibly distasteful to me and I fully expected that distaste to carry over into her fiction work.

    That being said, I didn’t think Le Guin was particularly worth reading either. Maybe a little interesting, but largely a footnote because the ideas she explores are (IMO) thoroughly discredited.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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