Ursula K. Le Guin
From Jules Verne in the 19th century to H.G. Wells in the early 20th century, followed by such classic sci-fi writers as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt and Frederik Pohl, the roster of sci-fi writers has been overwhelmingly male.
No more. Even though the overall genre continues to be something that appeals more to 15-year-old boys than anyone else, women – especially over the past three decades – have worked hard to make their collective presence known.
Which is why the March selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club is Portland-based writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1970 Hugo Award-winning novel, “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
Writers such as Kate Wilhelm (1977’s “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang”), Spokane resident C.J. Cherryh (1982’s “Downbelow Station,” 1989’s “Cyteen”) and Lois McMaster Bujold (1991’s “The Vor Game,” 1992’s “Barrayar,” 1995’s “Mirror Dance,” 2004’s “Paladin of Souls”) all have won Hugo Awards for best novel – the highest honor handed out to novelists by the World Science Fiction Society.
Those writers, plus others such as Vonda N. McIntyre (1978’s “Dreamsnake”), Pat Murphy (1987’s “The Falling Woman”) and several others also have won Nebula Awards for best novel, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
But the move toward a feminist-minded science fiction began as much as anyone with Le Guin, who owns her own share of literary honors.
In addition to winning the Hugo for Best Novel for “The Left Hand of Darkness,” Le Guin also won in 1973 for her novella “The Word for World is Forest” and in 1975 for “The Dispossessed.” Both “Left Hand” and “Dispossessed” also won Nebulas, as did “Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea” in 1990.
Besides winning additional Nebulas and Hugos both for novellas and short stories, Le Guin has garnered a number of other prizes, including a 1973 National Book Award for the young-adult novel “The Farthest Shore.”
Awards aside, the prolific Le Guin – who has written dozens of novels, story collections, children’s books, poetry and essays – has been recognized as a literary pioneer not just for writing sci-fi but for using the genre to explore themes of sexuality and gender, utopian attitudes versus the dictates of society and the very bases of human nature.
As novelist Victoria Strauss (“The Garden of the Stone”) wrote of “The Dispossessed,” which Le Guin subtitled “an Ambiguous Utopia,” “It’s a book of opposites: a utopian novel that doesn’t flinch from exposing the flaws of its model society, a feminist-themed narrative with a male protagonist, a social commentary that presents communal cooperation as the truest human ideal, yet focuses on the inevitable separateness of the creative individual within such a structure. Through these dichotomies, Le Guin examines the tension between human aspiration and human nature, between what can be dreamed and what can be achieved.”
Born in 1929 in Chicago and a Phi Bet Kappa graduate of Radcliffe College in 1951 (she’s been married to historian Charles A. Le Guin since 1952), Le Guin has evolved her views, not to mention her voice, over the decades. Such changes have, at times, drawn critical fire.
“Le Guin has sometimes been severely taken to task for choosing a male protagonist,” wrote Paul Brians, a professor of English at Washington State University, in a study guide that he wrote for “The Dispossessed.” “In fact, most of the protagonists of her early novels are male. But her critics overlooked the fact that her novel incorporates many feminist values, even if it is not a radical feminist utopia. In some ways, it is especially revealing to have these values reflected through a masculine consciousness.”
That “masculine consciousness,” even if undercut with a feminist sensibility, is on prominent display in “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
Part of her so-called “Hainish Cycle” (which includes “The Dispossessed” and “Word for World”), “The Left Hand of Darkness” tells the story of Genly Ai, a representative of the Ekumen – a loose association of 80 planets – who is seeking to bring the icy world of Gethen into the alliance.
Genly learns that Gethenians are an androgynous race that, when in heat, becomes either sex according to the needs of their partner (and just imagine: They consider him the aberration).
First accepted, then rebuffed, by the land of Karhide – whose leader, Estraven, becomes a friend – Genly travels to Karhide’s chief competition, the more oppressive land of Orgoreyn. But he runs into even worse trouble there, and only the intervention of Estraven can save him.
To survive, the two must hike across the icy wastelands back to Karhide, a feat that not only is dangerous but may end up being in vain.
“ ‘The Left Hand’ is … a beguiling read quite apart from its layers and meanings,” wrote Mark Wilson for the online magazine Science Fiction Weekly. “Gethen itself is a fascinating world, with distinct, carefully developed cultures sharing in common an outlook born out of their frozen climate and their androgyne nature.”
“(W)hat makes me sure that I will continue to reread this novel at regular intervals is the very quality I once viewed with such scorn: its readability,” wrote reviewer Sarah LeFanu for the British paper Guardian Unlimited. “More than politics, more than science, ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ is a rich and complex story of friendship and love.”
Maybe so. But never let it be said that Le Guin isn’t aware of the influences implicit in the very language she uses to tell her tales, be they of friendship, love or politics.
“Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language,” she said in a 1983 commencement speech at all-women Mills College, “and the language of our tribe is the men’s language. Of course women learn it. We’re not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language.”