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.
Humans seem to have a strong bias toward narratives. We like stories. This is obvious when you read sports columns. Most of the time there’s really no substantive value-add. If you want substance, just check box scores. But we want a story. So sports columnists give us a story. Usually something mildly counter-intuitive, general platitudes and conventional wisdom with just a twist. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, no one cares. How many people remember Bill Walton talking about how Shawn Bradley was a better basketball player than Shaquille O’Neil?
Much the same applies to political punditry. There was no point in speculating whether Rick Perry would, or wouldn’t, do well as an aspirant nominee of the Republican party for the presidency. We’d know sooner or later. I really got tired of Texas pundits like Eric Greider going on about how we shouldn’t underestimate him. Aside from the fact that he was smart enough to be an air force officer, everything else implies that he’s not too sharp, validated especially by his recent debate performances. But we wanted a story, so there was a demand for pundits from Texas talking Perry’s prospects up. Now we have pundits like Ross Douthat echoing the line that Mitt Romney is inevitable as the nominee. Great. But remember when Ross and Matt Yglesias simply couldn’t imagine a scenario in which Hillary Clinton wasn’t the nominee in December of 2007? I do.
So we love stories. That’s a human universal. As human beings we have particular cognitive orientations which are general across our species. Our facility for language for example. An appreciation of art and other cultural productions which don’t seem to have immediate utility. But there is also variation. Our tastes differ. But sometimes we forget that. I thought of that when reading this piece in Slate, For the Love of Science Fiction. The author begins “…I disdained science fiction for many years, considering it too short on humanity and too long on pointless technical specs.” There is definitely going to be a mention of Ursula K. Le Guin. The author concludes:
Science fiction dates as quickly as any genre, and Bradbury is not entirely immune to this. The futuristic rocket ships he wrote about in 1950 look a lot like the first-generation NASA rockets; the music of the future is Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington; and in the terrifying “Mars is Heaven,” the planet bears an eerie resemblance to Green Bluff, Ill., right down to Victorian houses “covered with scrolls and rococo.” But the reason Bradbury’s stories still sing on the page is that, despite all his humanoid robots, automated houses, and rocket men, his interest is not in future technologies but in people as they live now—and how the proliferation of convenient technology alters the way we think and the way we treat each other.
Matt Yglesias muses on the possible influence of Isaac Asimove’s Foundation series on the way he looks at the world. Interestingly, Paul Krugman admits his debt to this series as well in getting him interested in economics. Unlike Robert Heinlein or mentor John W. Campbell Asimov was a political liberal. It is not uncommon for nerdy males, who are disproportionately represented in the pundit-class, to go through a science fiction phase in their youth. It would be interesting to see how interests in various authors tracked their current political positioning (I’d bet money that Poul Anderson is more popular with people who work at the Cato Institute).
Note: William Sims Bainbridge’s Dimensions of Science Fiction explores the various demographic trends which characterize the science fiction subculture. Politically there’s a bimodal distribution between liberals and libertarians, with more traditional conservatives such as Jerry Pournelle being the exception.