Science Fiction Studies

#13 = Volume 4, Part 3 = November 1977

Gérard Klein

Le Guin's "Aberrant" Opus: Escaping the Trap of Discontent

Translated by Richard Astle

Ursula K. Le Guin's opus, in particular the novels of the Hainish cycle, does not seem to fit into the general trend in American SF towards discontent and pessimism.1 Her two most accomplished books, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, both take place in a distant future whose concerns and conflicts do not appear, at first sight, to coincide with those of the contemporary world. One would be tempted to classify them, and the four other episodes of the Hainish cycle, among works of pure imagination, of escapism, which it is fashionable to disparage. But I would venture to suggest—without any pretense of proposing a complete explanation of Le Guin's structure—that, in spite of appearances, her work does refer to a constituted science, and even further, to an ideology of this science, in the purest tradition of SF. The latter assertion seems to me to be of importance since I believe that the durable relationship which SF has, for better or worse, muddled through to establish between science (or technology) and literature, between rational knowledge and art, is of real cultural validity. Therefore, a break in this relation (which some would call the emancipation of speculative literature from science) is a real regression which has its counterpart, and even its origin, in society.                

Le Guin separates herself from most of her colleagues on the question of the future unity of human civilization. For a long time, certainly since the last century, the theme of progress has appeared indissolubly linked to a tendency towards the standardization of cultures, towards the constitution of a single and unique human civilization, of which the great—and terrible—dream of a World State is perhaps the most current but not the least naive manifestation. This is a utopia cultivated as much on the Right as on the Left. In the SF mode, an ideology of science and technology serves as the unifying principle. The received—and much too simplistic—idea that truth (scientific, but before that, religious) is one, that each problem has one and only one "best" solution, impregnates a whole naive way of looking at social development. We have seen in my previous article the meaning of this unity for the social group that is the bearer of SF, anxious to accede to power by the universalization of its values. Thus, plurality is in general posited in the SF future only as an irreducible opposition: the Alien, the Extra-Terrestrial, the other, remains most often an enemy—unless the reverse happens, and he becomes a model. When agreement is established, with or without conflict, it is at the price of reduction to identity. Most works of contemporary SF, when they contain a utopian element, are haunted by a specter, that of orthodoxy—be it benevolent or malevolent, be it sorrowfully submitted to—or charismatically advocated and enforced.    

Le Guin, for her part, challenges all orthodoxy in advance, in the sense that in all her works she posits a diversity of solutions or rather of responses, a plurality of societies, and furthermore that history is made where cultures come into contact: in Rocannon's World as in The Left Hand of Darkness, and more clearly in the recent The Dispossessed. What pre-exists the universe of the Hainish cycle is the breaking up of the Hainish culture, just as what pre-exists human history is the differentiation of cultural experiences. The theme of the planet Hain which seeded all the habitable worlds in that part of the galaxy is a myth of foundation, prior to all narrative. In the logic of the opus, the history of Hain before its fragmentation cannot be described. In this sense, Hain is Eden, the place of an abolished unity, foreclosed, prior to all real life.             

This is clearly not a simple convention intended to explain the presence of more or less modified humans on a large number of worlds, for such a "cosmic" diversity is reproduced on each of the worlds Le Guin describes. The particular result is that for humanity no crisis can be final. Not without irony, Le Guin emphasizes that he who mistakes his own crisis for that of the whole human civilization is singularly limited by ignorance. Thus, in The Dispossessed, Le Guin's intention is clearly not simply to contrast two societies, one much resembling America today and the other having several traits in common with present-day China or perhaps with the Israel of the great dream, that is to say, before independence. Much less is it her intention to take a side—although the sympathies of the author, as someone exercising her subjectivity within the limits of her creation, appear evident enough—but rather to show that the two societies equally belong to human possibility. Despite their apparent separation they maintain close historical ties, in particular in their reciprocal fantasy representations, if only because the anarcho-collectivist society of Anarres comes out of the liberal bourgeois society of Urras at the same time as it rejects the latter's ethical defects. For Le Guin, what matters in the last instance is their difference which introduces the possibility of a dialogue, of a commerce (in the largest not necessarily economic, sense of the term), of an exchange which will allow the invention of the ansible, instrument of communication par excellence.                

This difference also introduces a possibility, essential for Le Guin, of ethical judgement issuing from a practical confrontation and not from a system of moral rules deduced from any metaphysics. Without the experience of Anarres, the planet where an anarcho-collectivist society has established itself, Shevek would not be able to produce an ethical judgement, would not be able, that is, to condemn the social inequalities of Urras from the point of view of his subjectivity, moulded by a particular society. It is this distance as well as the experience of Anarres that provides the Urras revolutionaries with something special, a point-of-view larger than the strict defence of their class interests would require: the hope, the idea that it is possible to conceive of and to construct another society.                

Thus Le Guin's work presents, in my view, an important concept which speaks against the ideology of necessity so pervasive in SF—namely that, socially and sociologically speaking, the possibility of hope, the idea of change itself, resides in the experience, the subjectivity of the other. The point is not, of course, in copying the other's solution, but in reacting to it with one's own individual and social subjectivity. History is neither a succession nor an accumulation of experiences, but a confrontation of experiences; it cannot be linear, even though chronology appears to invite linearity. Further, it becomes absurd to condemn a society or to propose an eternal model, even one conceived as evolving.                

We here touch on a partial meaning of the beautiful short story, "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas": all societies, be they the most utopian, the most perfect ones you can dream of whatever your dreams, carry in their depths their own denial, a fundamental injustice. Not because humanity is bad (metaphysically) but because every society, like a language, functions on the basis of a system of oppositions, and tends within itself to recreate and to perpetuate difference, including the difference between that which is subjectively experienced as good and as bad. Le Guin gently and somewhat unexpectedly introduces into SF a social relativism—which is by no means an eclecticism nor a skeptical cynicism after the manner of Vonnegut.                

This social relativism suggests several reflections. A specter, I have said, haunts SF and, beyond it, our civilization itself, a specter which Le Guin helps to exorcise: that of the ideal society or rather of the ideal of society. This specter ridiculously clothes itself in scientific hand-me-downs or rather in pseudo-scientific metaphor appropriated from natural sciences. If we are to believe those zealots, from their various ideological perspectives, there exists a precise solution to all human problems, in particular social ones: the main question is to utilize the science which would supply these solutions. This is what is implied in the works of Van Vogt and Asimov; indeed, the latter does not seem to make clear distinctions among machines, robots, and human beings. In less extreme and seemingly less naive forms, panaceas are proposed which tend to demonstrate, scientifically, that it would suffice to add to or to take away from human culture a given element in order for humanity to know peace, happiness, and prosperity, just as one can admittedly protect oneself from an illness with a vaccine.2 All these propositions, some of which can seem quite generous, are based on the hypothesis of the objectivity of the social realm (in the sense that one speaks of the objectivity of the physical world, which only non-physicists still assert), and exhibit thus a strong odor of metaphysics: the world is understood to have been made in a certain manner whose laws it would suffice to know and respect in order to gain mastery over it. Philip K. Dick did much to shake such a confidence in "reality," but it was Le Guin who introduced the consequences of its destruction into the practice of conjectural literature. In fact, the "objectivist" hypothesis implied that social mechanisms can be thought of in abstraction from those who make them up and from the evolving cognition they have of their environment. However, history is made not by mechanical interaction of social molecules, definable once and for all, however complicated that definition might be, but by dialectical interactions among subjects, bearers of cognitions which are certainly limited but which change in function of their experiences. Further, the absence of a "total social science" does not result from a lack of cognition that might be reduced by a specialized effort, but from the fact that, while the process of interactions of knowing subjects unfolds, such a science is not constitutable; and were the process to stop, there would be no one to constitute it.  

A scientific attitude toward society and history implies a reconciliation between subjectivity and science, and also an acceptance of the fact that all science is, in the final instance, subjective, that is to say relative to an observer-operator who knows and acts within a particular situation, marked by his point-of-view. In this perspective, history can best be defined as the space of interaction of these relative, operative cognitions. By "subjects" it must be clear that one does not necessarily mean individuals, as liberal theory would have us believe, but social groups as well, indeed entire societies. Furthermore, this subjectivity does not imply that all propositions—even the most absurd ones—are arbitrarily equivalent: such an equivalence could be posited only by reference to an unattainable absolute. Reality is. The subjectivity of which we speak concerns simply the limited cognition a subject can have of the environment within which it acts and evaluates. This cognition can of course be more or less wide and more or less adequate to reality; but it is subject to change above all because it bears on a reality which is largely a function of the no less evolving cognitions of other subjects. It is the condition of social science, as of all the other sciences, to be an infinite process. But contrary to the other sciences, there is no one who can boast of comprehending its whole extent at a given moment, since it is diffused among all the cognizing subjects.

What Le Guin proposes in place of an unobtainable "total social science," what marks her originality in contemporary SF—indeed in literature—is not the idea that humanity progresses, in the sense that it goes from savagery to civilization, but that it is involved in a process of learning by means of its own differences and contradictions. And the stages of the process are perhaps emphasized in the course of her opus, with a willful naiveté tinged with malice, by humanity's progressive acquisitions of psychic powers. In a certain sense, the telepathy which appears in Rocannon's World, followed by mind-lying and the mental control which annuls it in City of Illusions, and finally by precognition in The Left Hand of Darkness, metaphorically reproduce humanity's invention of language, father of the lie, then of logic, and finally of a comprehensive theory of history and therefore of the future. That these "powers" come from the unconscious should perhaps be understood (at least in part) as signifying that such inventions are not born solely of the exercise of reason, but of a process of which the terms, particularly but not exclusively the social ones, remain largely unknown by the subjectivities which make history.               

Ethics, which occupies a central place in the universe of Le Guin, is in fact a taking account of the behaviors, points of view, and ethics of others. Without any reference to a transcendence, man is "naturally" for Le Guin an ethical animal insofar as he can integrate into his own consciousness, through language, a part of the lived experience—in particular the social situations—of others. He is not a nomad. Contrary to other animals which entertain only ecological relations among themselves and with the world, he also develops social relations. It does not seem to me inexact to say that ethics represents from then on a sociological pre-knowledge or pre-cognition, that it introduces a theoretical and practical science in the course of constitution, by which man changes from a sociable to a sociological animal. It is then evident that where ethics is lacking, where this pre-knowledge is faulty, social problems, even a grave crisis, cannot but arise. Such a flaw can manifest itself in two ways: the return to a fixed conception—absolute, theological, or metaphysical—of morality which claims to coincide with human ethology; or the rejection of the points-of-view of other subjects and the obsessive pursuit of self-interest. In both cases a false and formalized knowledge of man denies and obliterates an authentic pre-knowledge. Both cases are represented, in antagonistic or allied pairs, in our world: the prophets of doom are not completely wrong when they announce a moral crisis, a weakening of human values; but what they call for with their pleas of law and order is just as surely at the opposite pole from a rebirth of an ethics as the disordered, blind, indeed frenzied demands of those they condemn. Indeed, humanity only solves its problems to the extent that each subject, each man, becomes, to the extent of his experience, a "sociologist," and it cannot advance more quickly, on this terrain, than the slowest ship in its convoy.          

All, or nearly all, of Le Guin's works describe such a crisis and the conditions for the appearance of an ethics in this precise sense. Further, for Le Guin, man is an ethical animal also in the sense that he has the collective possibility of inventing and experimenting with social behavior in the same way that he can invent and experiment in other scientific fields. History is not for her a series of more or less glorious events, but it has this direction. It produces ethics as it produces language, and—as in the linguistic domain—each subject acts in the ethical domain without needing to know all its elements and their interrelations but, at any given stage, as though he were aware of them. True history is in the unconscious. The unrenounceable and inaccessible mastery of history lies in the elucidation of that unconscious.                

Thus, a very long history has aged the Hainish, has made them wise and loaded them with guilt: they had tried everything. But why does that guilt, heavy and sad, persist, even though they have collectively recognized their errors and attempted to correct them? Perhaps it is necessary to remember Freud's distinction between hate (la Haine!) and love: "Hate, as a relation to objects, is older than love. It derives from the narcissistic ego's primordial repudiation of the external world with its outpouring of Stimuli."3 The guilt of the Hainish is a reminiscence of the hate which they originally unleashed. These Hainish, so precisely, so evocatively named, once caused the differentiation of the human race and, in a complex process only alluded to by Le Guin, conceived hate for the others, for those different ones whom they had themselves made, who were themselves. They committed, then, inexpiable crimes, which later, when they could bear the difference and found themselves again facing the same objects, changed into guilt. Yet by differentiating humanity they rendered possible, much later, knowledge or cognition, that is to say love, but at the price of an unremitting anguish which recapitulates simultaneously the initial withdrawal and the recognition. The Hainish destroyed by the force of hate the shell of a pre-ethical Eden, which cannot be re-entered, and they can only forever repent.                

One can allow, along this line, that Hain could be the symbol, not only of our culture, split between permanent fragmentation and the destruction of the different, but also of the bourgeoisie in the act of breaking up, of differentiating itself into eventually antagonistic social groups, if not into castes, at the cost of its more or less explicit egalitarian utopia and of the illusion of its universal mediation of (or of its power over) social reality. If so, this class becomes, by its very disappearance, the bearer of history and of civilization. Thus Le Guin completely overturns the problematic of the social group. It must disappear so that there may be life, growth, trying out and enrichment. This experience of dissolution and social death (see my first article for its effects in other SF authors) is by her localized, reduced, contained in the Hainish sentiment of guilt, in their anguish, in their nostalgia, of which the original reasons have become unconscious. One is tempted to write that, through the Hainish, Le Guin—contrary to her colleagues—mourns for that threatened social class, which she even sees as the occasion for an extraordinary revitalization whose description and comprehension are her only interest. This crisis, our crisis, is at the beginning and not at the end, behind and not before, and it is pregnant with other crises which lead to the growth of ethics in the unconscious, to cognition, to tolerance and to the possibility of love. The unconscious is doubly figured here, in the author who as it were conceals her problem in it and extracts from it a novelistic solution, and in her opus.                

Can we go one step further? The fecundity of Hain, which seeded all the human planets, conceals perhaps something like a shadow of the famous "original scene," that of the coitus of the parents from which a whole brotherhood arises. Whereas most other SF writers behave as though they do not really accept the "birth" (or rather the unmasking) of other social categories, whether dominant (the "Big Brother," the neofeudals) or dominated (the "younger sons," the proletariat or subproletariat), Le Guin accepts all its consequences, beginning with the very apparition of the Other. She also sees the benefits of this ineluctable inequality: a renascence of values other than the market ones. This is doubtless why neo-medieval societies play such a role—but not an exclusive one—in her work, and why she attaches such importance to nobility, to honor, like the "shiftgrethor" of the Karhideans in The Left Hand of Darkness. Incidentally, does she not write, "Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel" (LHD, §I)? But conversely, does not the acceptance of the Other, then of the hate-filled brotherhood, finally of cooperative posterity, signify that Le Guin has incorporated the "original scene," has taken it up as a woman, has installed herself as mother? Perhaps it is out of this condition—and in particular out of her female condition—that she can say this thing earlier and better than her masculine colleagues. In this sense, Hain is also Le Guin herself. Thus we see the myth of Hain resonating on three different levels without any self-evident relation between them: a personal level, where the guilt and the hate sustained by the contemplation or the fantasy of the "original scene" and by its products, eventual brothers and sisters, finds itself re-elaborated in adulthood and in some way positively turned around into geniality, that is to say into love and parentage, in the typically feminine manner of creative fragmentation; a social level, that of the downfall and breakup of the social class to which Le Guin belongs, which can be understood, assumed, and admitted as positive precisely by reason of work performed on the personal level; and finally, of course, a novelistic level, where the two preceding ones intermingle and at the same time speak to each other and express themselves. Everything happens as though the successful and fortunate solution of a personal conflict allowed envisaging, with a realistic optimism, the still unreachable solution of a social problem, for which the work is precisely the substitute, in short, a metaphorical child. It is rare, in my experience, that one sees with such clarity these different pathways, inscribed on each of these levels, deployed and resonating among themselves (though we have here, I submit, a widely distributed, possibly general, artistic phenomenon). One catches a glimpse, without really being able to grasp it, of the particular conditions for the production of such a work: a happily resolved childhood, an active feminine geniality, a belonging to a precise moment of a social class in crisis, and of course the necessary talent, intelligence, and culture. Let one of at least the first three circumstances be different, and the result would be completely different. Of course, the constitution of Le Guin's opus is not simply a product of these circumstances, but itself plays a very dynamic role in the ordering of their relations.                

One finds again the function of the unconscious as the place where history inscribes itself in The Lathe of Heaven (1971), which, however interesting, is doubtless not the best of Le Guin's works. Curiously, she herself seems to experience a particular difficulty in situating it. She sees little here, she says in an interview, but a fable on "normality." She reversed here the roles of a psychiatrist and his patient: the former moves towards madness through the fantasy of his patient, namely the omnipotence of his dreams, while the latter acquires mastery over his "power," the realization of his dream-desires through successive disastrous experiences provoked by the increasing megalomania of the doctor who wishes to take advantage of that power to remake the world. Within our argument, this work covers two gaps in Le Guin's work. The unlivable near future finds itself here described in terms very similar to those we have encountered in other writers, notably Dick and Brunner.4 But above all, this novel raises an ethical problem, here in the unconscious, closely related to what I indicated above: the problem of interference [in the pattern-producing sense in which light waves interfere with each other—trans.] between centers of consciousness (conscience) and of actions. (here between the doctor and his patient) conceived as being at the origin of experience, of growth, and of cognition. The doctor goes mad because he does not recognize in the other an autonomous center, he comes to consider him as a machine, a mediating thing by means of which he can exert pressure on the real. Inversely, the patient becomes sane to the extent that he recognizes others have the same creative power as his own, though most often they lack the awareness or the experience which comes from having too long served as mediating objects. Thus the real world is that where autonomous desires encounter, recognize, and interfere with one another. The alienated world is that where one's desire develops with neither restraint nor opposition and exhausts itself in solitude. One recognizes here the problematic of the early Dick, which finds privileged expression in Eye in the Sky (1957). The place given to the dream in Lathe sufficiently indicates that there is no immediate, intrinsic solution to the problem posed to the social group in the near future. Here psychic powers, the extraordinary, a miracle in short, that is to say the impossible, would be needed. But at the same time, if one agrees to pass from narrative- as-representation (here of a false reality) to narrative-as-metaphor, this call to the powers of dream asserts there is no solution but in something which goes beyond rationality and individual will: the constant remodeling of the world by the dreamers' desires, the permanent interference of the actors' desires, in the social world. And the role which falls to George Orr is in some way a metaphor of the artist in our world, who at the same time invokes a false solution (the work of art) and reveals, by means of the formulated dream, the true solution to come. As Ian Watson notes in a slightly different perspective, Lathe is really a transitional work in Le Guin's work. She has here clearly expressed something which only appears by its absence in her preceding works, namely, the unconscious, and as in doing this she doubtless felt some resistances she leaned on a great precedent, that of Philip K. Dick. But her discomfort is felt in the relatively stiff construction of her work.                

If one allows Watson's astute thesis according to which Lathe was for Le Guin the means to resolve the "schismogenic" tension accumulated in the works of the Hainish cycle between the growing recourse to the paranormal and the concern with sounding psychological and moral depths, it is all the more interesting to see the paranormal—which I have designated above as a metaphor of humanity's successive acquisitions in the domain of its self-cognition—developing in autonomous fashion and being charged with effects without the author's knowledge. From a certain point of view, it is not a question of a metaphor, since the image possesses a reality and a force of its own in the psyche (psychisme) of its author, but in fact all truly poetic metaphors, which go beyond the level of a device of style, present this double efficacy. It is as though for a time the image in the author's preconscious and the "meaning" in her consciousness develop parallel to each other, so that an unconscious operation on the image can give birth to a conscious thought at the level of meaning. At the end of such a development, when the evolution proper to the preconscious image renders it unusable in the chain of thought and inadmissible by consciousness as lacking pertinence to reality, each follows its own destiny, the one of fantasy, the other of reasoning. But in this divorce the image loses its effectiveness in the real world and the thought its force in the affective domain and, no doubt, even the very possibility of its prolongation. I will go so far as to say that the artist makes use of one part of the unconscious as a kind of analogical calculator which he feeds with "facts" and which returns "results" after the intervention of a "model" partially analogous to reality but entirely unknown and inaccessible to the artist. Insofar as the analogy to reality is acknowledged by consciousness, there is thought. Otherwise, before and after this acknowledgment, there is fantasy. It is in this sense that dreams can have a certain heuristic value and that they even exercise, although much less directly than in Lathe, a certain influence on reality. I would even willingly believe that style, taken in the very large sense of all aesthetic organization, from the general structure of the narrative to the idiosyncracies of the writing, is as it were a residue of this unconscious work, the signature of this process. Abstract thought pretends no longer to need it and to allow a summary indifferent to the form, but that is only achieved by denying its own origins which it knows perhaps too well, for it comes from a place where it was nothing but "style," nothing but contour or container without distinguishable content. The "style" of Lathe, in this sense, is felt in the exaggeratedly fantasmatic content of the work, poorly tolerated by the author's rigorous consciousness which reduces or deforms it.                

One must obviously also ask oneself whence comes this rigor, or rather from what exterior models it borrows its criteria. These criteria are very important, since they determine the limits of what consciousness (conscience) will admit, of the "pertinence to reality" and therefore of fantasy. In the case of Le Guin and many other SF writers, it seems to me that such cultural notions are borrowed from a science, or at the very least from a more or less ideological, more or less informed, notion of a science. And it is perhaps the source of these borrowings that best distinguishes SF writers from other writers who seem to borrow their models from the dominant ethics, from "popular" philosophy, or from earlier literary discourse on reality—if not from the form itself of that discourse.                

For Le Guin, in any case, the source is clear and precise: it is ethnology, and furthermore such a conception of ethnology which tends on the one hand to relativise cultures with respect to each other and on the other hand, less fashionably, to place the emphasis on the relations cultures entertain among themselves. At least as much as on their respective particularities. This idea is clearly expressed in a booklet by Lévi-Strauss, Race and History5 which appears to foreshadow quite precisely Le Guin's implicit theses in the Hainish cycle, without my suggesting for all that that it inspired her. In this essay Lévi-Strauss made an effort to generalize starting from his science, and he drew from it—surrounding it, certainly, with many precautions—a comprehensive ideology of human civilization (a pursuit which goes well beyond the requirements of science and already touches on those of a creative writer). This ideology, based on the attainment of an authentic science, struggles, let us recall, against a monstrous ideology, supported by an illusion of science, namely, racism.                

From a great number of passages from Race and History which could easily be adduced in support of the parallel to Le Guin, one is of particular interest: "It would seem," Lévi-Strauss writes in his third chapter, consecrated to ethnocentrism, a chapter on which many SF writers might profitably meditate, "that the diversity of cultures has seldom been recognized by men for what it is—a natural phenomenon resulting from the direct or indirect relationships between societies." By this criterion one measures the difference which separates utopia from SF. The former never acknowledges the natural phenomenon of cultural diversity. It proposes a unique model of social organization in space and in time. SF is much more circumspect and realistic: it easily acknowledges difference as a fact, but often, at least in its optimistic period, only to finally refuse it by making history the agent of conformity. It is nevertheless vital to emphasize that from Stanley Weinbaum to John Brunner by way of Hal Clement and many others, numerous authors have shown, in a more or less sketchy but often optimistic manner, a collaboration of different races and civilizations which preserves their specificity. This is an attempt to substitute for colonization a more acceptable model of relations among different peoples, and in doing so they proceed, as did Lévi-Strauss, from its intrinsic practical interest rather than on moral considerations.  

This is also one reason for the frequency of anti-utopias in SF, anti-utopias which often admit of no little ambiguity when they protest against that reduction to identity which the homogeneity of science and technology would produce, and against that project of political standardization which in fact is brought about not only by totalitarianisms but by bourgeois society itself. Thus, these anti-utopias are proffered outside science and the middle-class and often directed against both of them as though they were, by themselves, responsible for that menace, which they are not. The "ecological" catastrophe establishes itself in this sense in the forefront of anti-utopian literature, since it claims to denounce the consequences of a paradoxical utopia of progress. But in reality (see my first article) it expresses the fear of a dispersal of the social group bearing SF, and of its reduction to an undifferentiated mass. An extreme point of view of the same nature is presented by Stanislaw Lem (Solaris, The Invincible) who makes this natural phenomenon of irreducible diversity a source of pessimism by stripping it of ail inclination toward communication. In Lem's universe foreign races pass by without in any way being able to understand each other; it is difficult not to discover there at least a nostalgia for a lost unity, for a humanism and perhaps for socialism. Thus, from the classical utopia to Lem, by way of SF, one passes from one monadic system to a plurality of monadic systems, isolated and closed. Utopia and SF are literatures which consider the problem of cultural diversity, whether in order to exclude it, or to reduce it, or again to deny its benefits, as with Lem, or finally to exalt it, as does Le Guin. No other novelistic genre seems to have concerned itself with this subject to that extent.                

However, the American SF that has more or less accepted social relativism has often been a fearful reaction to the bursting of the American Dream, to the loss of power of the social group bearing SF, to the dissolution of its element into a working class envisaged (wrongly) as undifferentiated—in a word, to a reduction to the inferior. Almost alone, Le Guin seems to see in this bursting of the bubble the precondition of a new differentiation, of a rebounding of history. It is in such an attitude that lies her major similarity to European (including British) SF, which has always been subtly different from the American SF precisely in its relationship to differentiation. European SF has been created in a social context clearly much more diverse, and conserving the mark of much more ancient and deep inequalities, than the U.S. one, The ancient pessimism of European SF writers can thus be explained by the fact that their social group has never been able to entertain the illusion of an accession to power. However, the political masking of power relationships and the theatrical importance allotted to the individual's word have led some of the European SF writers to prophesying. What the Americans are discovering today, Europeans such as Brunner, Ballard and Aldiss have long known. Yet today, this old experience of inequality perhaps hinders the Europeans more than the Americans to see what is hidden in the new constellation of social possibilities, and immures them in social pessimism.                

As for Le Guin, when in The Dispossessed she gets beyond the problematic of the ecological or pseudo-ecological crisis of the end of human civilization, she can no longer elude the political formulation of the problem. So she finally reintroduces into SF the possibility of debate on the form of future society. In her "ambiguous utopia" she presents two solutions to the present equation: one "neo-feudal," resembling the most probable near-future of America and perhaps of the Soviet Union, and one anarcho-socialist. Without doubt one must read Anar-res as the thing (res) of the anar-chists, and urras=USSR (URSS in French) plus USA. She does not ask us to choose. She only asks us to reflect.                

It remains to propose a conjecture. It is that beyond the grounding in a science facilitated by her family environment, by her development, and without doubt by the historical culture of her husband, Le Guin has known how to surpass the crisis of her environment by proposing a world without a central principle, without a unifying system, without domination, because she is a woman, and as such the obsessional affirmation of the power of the phallus little concerns her. Perhaps she has thus indirectly suggested what a female culture might be, a-centric, tolerant, released, at last, on the occasion of the present crisis, from the male cultural pattern of repetitive conquest.


                1. See my article "Discontent in American SF," SFS 4(1977):3-13, to which this article is a sequel.
                2. This is the thesis of a professional scientist, B.F. Skinner, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).
                3. James Strachey, tr. and ed., "Instincts and their Vicissitudes," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (UK 1957), 14:139.
                4. Ian Watson has shown quite well, SFS 2(1975):67-75, what place this book takes in the economy of Le Guin's work and its relation to the universe of Philip K. Dick.
                5. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (Paris: Unesco, 1952).

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