Science Fiction Studies

#7 = Volume 2, Part 3 = November 1975

Donald F. Theall

The Art of Social-Science Fiction: The Ambiguous Utopian Dialectics of Ursula K. Le Guin

1. The Outside Observer in Utopia. The 20th century has seen the growth of the social sciences and the "humane sciences" as one of its more important developments in speculative thought, a fact increasingly reflected in the concepts of writers of SF, including utopian fiction. Although concern with social and cultural questions has always been a central feature of the utopian tradition within SF, a conscious use of concepts from the social sciences has been considerably slower to develop in SF than that of concepts from the natural sciences. In this development toward artistic self-consciousness the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin occupy a significant role; they are constantly concerned with questions of cultural interaction, cultural growth, communication, and the differences between fictional but always parabolic "highly intelligent life forms."

Le Guin's interest in humane sciences and cultural change appears to be linked to her concern with utopianism. Most of her imaginary societies are models critical of our present societies. Although her first major novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD), did not, strictly speaking, provide a utopian model, both the nations of Karhide and Orgoreyn are meant as criticisms of the present social and cultural order: the former by contraries, in terms of its anarchistic directions, and the latter directly, in terms of its bureaucratization. Further, the broader background of the interplanetary organization of the Ekumen is an "ideal" model with implicit criticisms of contemporary intercommunication between nations. Thus, following the utopian tradition, Le Guin provides a tension between the here-and-now and her various fictional futures. But her fictional future worlds also differ sharply from each other, allowing her to further investigate the potential of various social and cultural developments. Such juxtapositions of fictional societies are a feature of all of her Hainish novels; her only non-Hainish SF novel, The Lathe of Heaven, is a psychological study of dreams which materialize, providing a variety of modes of life within the same culture. In her most recent novel, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (TD), Le Guin overtly juxtaposes the capitalist aggressive and competitive nations on the world of Urras and the anarchist satellite world of Anarres. These two worlds are juxtaposed within the broader framework of an interstellar community of planets containing a possible future world of Earth (Terra), and using the Terran ambassador as a choral commentator on the concluding action of the novel. This counterpoints the entire action of the novel with the here and now, so that Anarres and Urras assume a variety of complex relationships with societies of the present.

Such a strategy of utopian fiction begins with More's juxtaposition of Books I and II in Utopia as well as his counterpointing of Utopia as a whole with events in his own historical time. It continues through Swift, who developed it with greater compositional complexity (though not necessarily greater conceptual complexity) in Gulliver's Travels. This strategy involves a dialectical logic and an implicit critique of society as well as providing critical rather than futurological models of possible alternative ways of life. In order to achieve this end, Le Guin seems to have quite consciously developed some aspects of this utopian tradition (down to Thoreau and Morris), and in particular the role of the stranger visiting a new world. The actual sensory experience and subjective response of strangers or outsiders plays a central role in validating the carefully chosen and believable details which compose the thorough accounts Le Guin gives us of her fictional worlds. In Rocannon's World the hero is a museumologist who comes to the planet as a cultural investigator; in Planet of Exile both Jakob and Rolery are outsiders who cease to be total strangers in each other's culture; in City of Illusions the outsider is a total stranger to the world and unaware, for most of the novel, of his own identity. In each case the separateness of the outsider makes him an observer as well as a participant, and allows for the particularly descriptive approach. In LHD, interestingly enough, the stranger—who is also the main narrator—is a professional cultural analyst and cultural communicator, whose concern with a thorough account of the culture provides the novel with the characteristic features of an anthropological report. Yet even in this respect Le Guin employs the techniques of ambivalence, for her field-worker, her "mobile" from the Ekumen to the Gethenians, realizes that the "truth" of the humane sciences is founded in imagination as well as fact:

I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my horneworld that Truth is a matter of imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling; like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it, and worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. (LHD §1)

Le Guin weaves into the utopian social-science-fiction the vigorous story-telling techniques used in adventure fantasy. This respect for an imaginative approach means among other things that Genly Ai's subjective emotions become part of his account, permitting others to judge it in the light of his subjective bias. In the telling, the subjective reactions of Ai (the name obviously involves a complex pun on I," "eye," etc.) are illustrated: reactions to the coldness of the climate, to the sexual problems posed by a world where everyone is a neuter except during periods of kemmer when they can become either male or female, to the political anarchy created by a world where there are no worlds and the entire planet is, like Karhide, "a family quarrel" (LHD §1). Le Guin consequently can use Ai as an ambivalent focus, in the same way that Hythloday or Gulliver are used: Ai himself reveals some of the naivete which complicates the action of the novel and impedes the success of his mission. The subjective mode of telling is extended in TD to a technique where the third-person narrative reappears, but always with a sense that the action is being seen through the eyes and the feelings of Shevek. Like Ai, Shevek becomes an ambivalent narrator, although like Ai he grows in the process so that his insights by the end of the novel are more perceptive than those at the beginning. Even though Shevek is not the "professional" which Ai is, the work itself develops the fictional societies on Urras and Anarres with the same detail and thoroughness as was done in LHD. That is, we learn about the details of physical geography, sexual customs, cultural evolution, ideology, life-style, and the like on the two worlds. The relating of Shevek's learning process, while it includes a fairly thorough anthropological description of the societies in question, involves equally an account of the emotions of Shevek as he explains his experiences.

That Le Guin's overall conception is utopian is apparent in the history and nature of the Ekumen. In our world, where there has been a constant need and desire for a world federation of nations, Le Guin's Ekumen—the most utopian concept of LHD—acts as a critique of the everyday strivings in this direction. However, she manages to preserve a dialectical tension which also provides internal criticism of the Ekumen itself. The critique of the Ekumen that is part of the action of LHD is part of that idea itself, because the way in which the Ekumen encounters new worlds is to open up a communication or trade of idea in which processes of mutual change take place—just as the First Mobile, Ai, is changed through his contact with Estraven and with the Foretellers as the action unfolds. Thus, Le Guin has a very complex and sophisticated dialectical conception of utopia: the observing outsider is a visual and emotional "eye" that negates its "outside" character by the very process of observing. The tradition of Hythloday and Gulliver is reconstructed in a period highly self-conscious of the humane sciences. Therefore, Le Guin's works and the observers themselves show a high consciousness of these sciences.

2. Le Guin and the Humane Sciences: Communication, Education, and Social Critique. To establish the degree of Le Guin's awareness of the humane sciences it is necessary to explore some of her main themes. These involve among other things: communications, intercultural interaction, social structure, role-playing, ideologies. The prime theme of her major novels and, in fact, the unifying theme of her Hainish novels, is communication, particularly communication between different kinds of highly intelligent life forms ("hilfs"). In many ways LHD provides a basic pattern for these concerns. Therefore, let us consider here the focus of communication in its action. First of all, Ai's particular mission, which gives rise to the action of the novel, is an attempt on the part of the association of planets, known as the Ekumen, to open communication with new areas where there are intelligent life forms. In performing his function, Ai is fully aware of the difficulties involved in the process of intercultural contact and the need for caution and prudence in the pursuit of intercultural exchange of knowledge. As he points out, the Ekumen send only one envoy (First Mobile) on the first contact with any new planet:

The first voice, one man present in the flesh, present and alone. He may be killed ...or locked up with madmen...yet the practice is kept, because it works. One voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time; plenty of time; but time is the thing that the Ekumen has plenty of.... (LHD §3)

He is preceded by a team of undercover investigators, some of whose reports are cited during the telling of his story; forty years after they leave, the First Mobile comes. He leaves his ship in space so that it is not observed, and comes only with his interstellar communication device (the ansible) and some pictures of his homeworld, so as not to intrude alien artifacts prematurely into the culture. The Stability of Ekumen has established a carefully rationalized method of inter-culture contact and communication. Exploring the deepest meaning of such communication becomes one of the central concerns of the novel.

The most relevant differences between Gethen and Ai's homeworld are the facts that each person can assume the role of either sex in sexual and parental relations, and that Gethen itself is at the very limit of coldness inhabitable by intelligent life. These facts pose two major problems for Ai, and provide the novel with some of its major metaphors. The communication between Ai and the hero of the action, Estraven—who saves Ai's life and opens Gethen up to the Ekumen—only comes about through a long and difficult process of understanding. Early on in his account, Ai suggests that sex or "biological shock" is perhaps the chief problem, in a world where he can say of the person he rents his quarters from: "He was so feminine in looks and manner that I once asked how many children he had. He looked glum. He had never borne any. He had, however, sired four" (HD §5). Eventually, after a long period of isolated companionship while fleeing across a great glacier, Ai comes to recognize how gender had been an impediment to communication with Estraven and how, sharing a constant threat of death, he has learned to overcome this and love Estraven. Speaking of his new awareness of Estraven gained while crossing the glacier, Ai says:


And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with the fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality.... I had not been willing to give my trust, my friendship, to a man who was a woman, a woman who was a man. (LHD §18)

The unrecognized biological shock has been an impediment to human communication; but once recognized, it provides Ai with a whole new relationship to the culture with which he must work. A symbolic support for the episode is provided by its setting on the glacier. The glacier is a world somewhat like Poe's world in the closing of The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, for it is a world of which Estraven says, "There is nothing, the Ice says, but Ice" (LHD §16). The quality of whiteness on this ice world is reminiscent of the one in the writings of Poe and Melville, who would appear to be part of an American tradition of writing to which Le Guin's work is related.1

The incident on the ice illustrates Ai's coming to master the genuine art of communication with a Gethenian as a fellow human being, achieving mutual trust and understanding. This justifies the Ekumen's sending a single Mobile to first encounter a new society, as a means of having him learn to establish genuine relations with its inhabitants. Again and again Ai's perceptions, which shift from naivete to understanding as his account unfolds, focus on means of communicating with the society and of understanding the way of education and communication within the society itself. His investigation of the quasi-religious phenomenon of "foretelling," which is so central to Gethenian society, is just such a process, for he comes to realize that the Foretellers are using their understanding of the world in a peculiarly paradoxical way as a means of educating their fellow-Karhidians. The purpose of Foretelling is ultimately not to provide answers but to demonstrate that there is only one question that can be answered—"That we shall die." Therefore, as Faxe says, the basis of Foretelling is "The unknown,...the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action" (LHD §5). Foretelling within the social structure of Karhide is a basic education in the values of the society. The Foretellers really teach that change cannot be brought about through the reading of prophecies or predictions; that uncertainty is of the essence of the social fabric. The process of Foretelling is a social dramatization of this fact, in that it provides correct answers which are not necessarily (in fact, not usually) helpful answers since they do not cover enough of the future contingencies.

The Ekumen has produced its own form of wisdom for learning the wisdom of others as well as communicating whatever wisdom it may also contain. As Ai attempts to tell the Commensals of Orgoreyn (the bureaucratic collectivist society of Gethen):

the Ekumen is not essentially a government at all. It is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political, and as such is of course mostly a failure; but its failure has done more good for humanity so far than the successes of its predecessors. It is a society and it has, at least potentially, a culture. It is a form of education; in one aspect it's a sort of very large school—very large indeed. The motives of communication and cooperation are of its essence.... (LHD §10)

The Ekumen as an instrument of education is an instrument of communication, a way towards interplanetary wisdom. Such an approach, however—as Ai realizes and stresses—is essentially a dualistic approach, a fact dramatized in the structures that Le Guin chooses to create in her tales. In a section of Estraven's journal, the following exchange is recounted:


Ai brooded, and after some time he said, "You're isolated, and undivided. Perhaps you are as obsessed with wholeness as we are with dualism."

"We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn't it? So long as there is myself and the other."

"I and Thou," he said. "Yes, it does, after all, go even wider than sex...." (LHD §16)

This duality of "myself and the other" or "I and Thou" is naturally at heart of human communication, but it is also a duality which generates all of the other dualities in the processes of cognition and understanding. Such a sense of duality is common to all of Le Guin's writings, culminating in the duality of the opposed worlds of TD.

The very structure of her works is determined by this theme, for it is a structure of dualities—in LHD, of Gethen and the Ekumen, of Karhide and Orgoreyn, of Ai and Estraven. From the bringing together of the dualities and from the understanding that is generated by coming to terms with each of them, the process of discovery by which the meaning of the Ekumen is encompassed comes about. The process is dialectical and complexly critical, for each of the dual ingredients which will end up in creating a wholeness modifies and is modified by the other. Orgoreyn's bureaucracy displays both its greater rationality and its greater tendency towards totalitarianism when viewed against the anarchy and decentralized government of Karhide; Orgoreyn and Karhide show their provincialism in contrast to the Ekumen, but also some of the wisdom gained in having to come to terms more slowly—e.g. without an Industrial Revolution—on the world of Gethen. Finally, because of Le Guin's social-science consciousness, the presence of the contemporary world is to be found in the critical conceptions of LHD. The "simplicity" of Karhide becomes one mode of criticizing many contemporary phenomena; the centralization of Orgoreyn, another. Orgoreyn's prison camps, secret police forces, interminable politics, and incredible bureaucracy are modes of satirizing similar phenomena in our own culture. Karhide's Foretellers with their stress on ignorance become one mode of critical parable directed against the futurologists and the planners. All of Karhide with its different sexual arrangements and the relative peace which is maintained through them becomes a mode of critique of the over-use of sexual stimuli (see particularly §7 of LHD).

Le Guin, speaking of LHD, has suggested that she does use her novels to explore situations which have their parallel in the real world.2 She designed the world of Gethen in part to explore the male-female problem in a context where it would be possible to examine the thoughts and feelings of individuals who could be both men and women. But LHD goes further, involving a large number of social and human issues, as all her novels do. They are utopian in the specific sense of creating some relative perfection as a contrast with the world of the reader.

3. Ambiguous Utopianism: Le Guin's Dialectics of Socialist Democratic Humanism.For this reason, it is not surprising that Le Guin's most recent, major novel, TD, was subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia." The subtitle calls attention to ambivalence as an overt aspect of much of her work. In LHD, the nations of Gethen, in the act of intercultural contact with the Ekumen, also give rise to ambivalence; for example, many of the customs of Karhide, as Ai notes, have much to suggest by way of improvement to a Terran member of the Ekumen. But further, Le Guin uses the essential ambivalence of the utopian tradition. Beginning with More, many possible alternative fictional worlds were conceived as ambivalent, founded in the paradoxes generated by the juxtaposition of fictional models and real worlds. The fondness for paranomasia (puns) in More and Swift reflects this complex ambivalence by which they seduce the uncritical rationalist into double binds. An example which parallels Le Guin's treatment of Anarres occurs when "More" (the fictional character in Utopia who has listened to Hythloday's account, including the part about the use of gold and ornament in Utopia—an account paralleling the incident of the necklace in TD §10) remarks on the many values of Utopia but notes that among other qualities the virtue of magnificence—the ethical art of doing and making things well and in the grand manner—is absent from the commonweal. In the context of the narrative, More's (the author's) other works, and the values More saw in the play impulse, this creates precisely such an ambiguous tension; for the necessary critique which the Utopians have performed by suppressing such magnificence will eventually become a problem for them as their society evolves. Part of the tension of More's Utopia arises through a double historical vision: Hythloday's awareness—e.g. of the potential for change his own coming to Utopia represents—is more limited than that of "More" (the character) and, of course, More the author. Hythloday's Platonic Utopia is a static concept, though his intrusion into its society—like Ai's intrusion into Gethen—creates a process of historical change. The very nature of the collision between the processes of history and of utopianizing creates an ambiguity, which so many critics attempt to resolve in utopian novels in order to have a definite outcome.

Le Guin, though, is too aware of the tension in the tradition and the fact that it arises out of the process of estrangement which is bound to occur in intercultural communication; the Ekumen as a utopian conception is—as I argued in section 1—one way of taking this into account. The action of TD, therefore, begins before the utopian Ekumen has come into being, so that it explores the problem of utopia within a Pre-Ekumenian, relatively pre-utopian framework, so to speak. The parameters within which it does this, though, are the same parameters of "social-science fiction" which mark all of Le Guin's other SF novels.

In TD, therefore—as in LHD—communication is a central theme and motivation for producing the action of the novel. Intercultural contact again plays a major role and—though not as central to the novel as Ai—a Terran plays the role of chorus at its conclusion when Shevek is given sanctuary in the Terran embassy to Urras. The action of TD rises out of its central character's, Shevek's, growing realization that the presumably anarchistic utopian world of Anarres is seriously flawed in many ways, especially in terms of the freedom of communication in ideas. Metaphorically, the world of Anarres as a whole looms more and more like a prison (of which there are none on Anarres)—a metaphor the understanding of which goes back to a childhood experience of Shevek's when he and some of his schoolmates tried to recreate what prison was like on a world that does not have any. The metaphor of prison becomes even more closely linked to inhibition of communication when related to the dominant symbol of the novel—walls. The novel opens with a reference to walls:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than the wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended on which side of it you were on. (TD §1)

The wall could be seen either as enclosing the universe and "leaving Anarres, outside, free" or it could be seen an enclosing Anarres and making it a "great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other man, in quarantine" (TD §1).

One dimension of Anarres as an ambiguous utopia—and one that it shares with More's Utopia—is the necessity of cutting itself off from other men and other history. It can maintain its utopian purity only as long as it does not communicate with those outside itself, so that it becomes a total institution. This also means that within the individual groups of "syndicates" that form the anarchistic society there is a substantial control of ideas, a fact Shevek suffers from since his theories of time cannot be developed as he wishes, yet "it is of the nature of an idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, like crowds, thrives on cross-breeding, grows better for being stepped on" (TD §3). As Shevek grows and develops, he becomes dedicated to the liberation of ideas and of the mind; before leaving for Urras, he establishes a printing syndicate on Anarres to communicate ideas which were being inhibited. He finally decides to leave Urras in order "to go fulfill my proper function as a social organism. I'm going to unbuild walls" (TD §10).

TD begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras, and his earlier life is presented through a series of flashbacks juxtaposed with his current life on Urras, a technique which has obvious affinities with his own Theory of Time. This strategy creates a constant tension between the values of the two worlds and their varying impacts on Shevek. It is one of the clearest devices for demonstrating the weaknesses (and hence ambiguities) in Anarres by exposing it to the one type of scrutiny which it forbids itself from doing. The tension is neither simple nor solely paradoxical, for in Shevek's intensely critical perspective on injustice, poverty, commercialism and other aspects of Urras, and in his final return to Anarres, the novel is achieving a sophisticated reshaping of the world of Anarres within Shevek's vision of what it might be or ought to be. During their meeting, when Keng, the Terran, provides him with sanctuary, she takes exception to Shevek's view that "Hell is Urras." In comparison to the (future) Earth, ecologically destroyed and inhabitable only by means of "total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labour force...," Urras seems

the kindliest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds. It is the world that came as close an any could to paradise. I know it's full of evils, full of human injustice, greed, folly, waste. But it is also full of good, of beauty, of vitality, achievement. It is what a world should be! It is alive, tremendously alive—alive despite all its evils, with hope. (TD §11)

This newly introduced perspective performs a function similar to the removing of Karhide and Orgoreyn from the perspective of Gethen to that of the universe, though it is, again, not the final word on Urras, merely a testimony to the hope it still contains.

This complexity of perspectives which Le Guin develops is a characteristic of her works as a whole. Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions all strive for similar conceptual complexities by involving life on worlds with a variety of different peoples inhabiting them and the intrusion of outsiders into these worlds; the tendency in each is towards some ambiguity or ambivalence. In each case, too, the presence of history (a fictional world history) is an important ingredient of the works as well as a constantly implied comparison with the present. But only in TD is this overtly linked with a fully articulated theory of time and history which is an intrinsic part of the novel, since it is because of inhibitions to developing and disseminating this theory that Shevek travels from Anarres to Urras and back.

The theory of time propounded by Shevek dialectically interrelates a theory of sequence with a theory of simultaneity. As his social education matures throughout the novel, he comes to apply his theory to social and ethical questions. This suggests to him that—while he left Anarres for Urras because Anarres attempted to sever its communications with history and its past, with those who still lived in it on Urras—Urras as well as the Terran ambassador sever themselves from the future which Anarres presents to them. While Shevek's return to Anarres clearly indicates his preference for his home-world, he returns as a more critical and aware person to await the time when finally the Terrans or the Urrasti will seek out Anarres, ready to understand its values. There's no attempt in the fictional situation to eliminate the ambivalences in Anarres, for they are there partly as a result of a total sociopolitical situation—the Odonian flight from Urras. On the other hand, the story—just as Shevek's theory of history—does not eliminate the possibility of change or hope. In fact, contingency, chance, change are the factors which make Shevek's dream possible. He can begin to develop his unified field theory because he has finally accepted the fact that "In the region of the unprovable, or even the disprovable, lay the only chance for breaking out of the circle and going ahead" (TD §9). This, too, he discovers in history, the history of his subject—physics. There he learns that the ancient Terran physicist, "Ainsetain," in his unwillingness to accept the indeterminacy principle (in a way similar to the principles of the Karhidians and their Foretellers), had created flaws and inadequacies in his theory, but that the theory is still "as beautiful, as valid, and as useful as ever, after these centuries, and yet both depended upon a hypothesis that could not be proved true and that could be and had been proved false in certain circumstances" (TD §9).

This, though, demonstrates a greater affinity between art and science; Shevek had discovered that through the fate of his friend Turin, whose imagination could not be contained within the world of Anarres. Le Guin, here, as in her other works, attracts the reader with an ambiguous kind of anarchist or—more generally—subversive dialectic, which has strong roots in the everyday situations of human living and in a sense of history. As in Ai's account, imagination becomes central to the Truth of this critique. The world of contemporary Marxism, the world of contemporary capitalism, the Third World, and the variety of contemporary attitudes towards these, play through each of her novels—including Lathe of Heaven which breaks the normal pattern of historically-oriented works to investigate one founded in the world where dreams create possible future histories. Her dialectic uses the utopian ideas of social science and Marx as a counterpoint to imaginative speculations at every level of her works, from composition and setting to ideas and character. In TD, for example, the characters form a world of oppositions through whose communication the mutual education of all develops. Shevek is a physicist, his wife Takver a biologist. Her awareness provides the critique of physical science necessary to come to terms with humanity. Tirin, as the artist, poses the challenge of creativity and of imagination to Shevek; Bedap, the propagandist-philosopher, shows the value of social awareness and social communication. While all of these characters are linked by the bonds of love and friendship, they differ enough so that they can interact, teach and learn from each other. Tirin, for example, "could never build walls.... He was a natural rebel. He was a natural Odonian—a real one" (§9). Yet Tirin was not a "strong person." The value of Tirin in the story is that he brings Shevek to see the necessity of unbuilding walls.

Le Guin's treatment of character by means of contrast and opposition parallels her way of dealing with ideas and structures in terms of both balance and imbalance. While balance is obviously a central feature of her writing, she also takes the concept of ambivalence very seriously, stressing history as perpetually upsetting the balance and creating new tensions. Le Guin sees balance as a dynamic principle mediating between oppositions. Hence her preoccupation with the paradox of communication: in order to communicate, it is necessary to recognize differences and to move toward an understanding of these differences. The stress on uncertainty and the recognition of "flaws"—becomes explicit in Shevek's theory—create a sharpened reinterpretation of the Taoist concept of balance in LHD, where she had expressed it by way of paradoxical epigram, e.g.: "Darkness is in the mortal eye that thinks it sees and sees not" (LHD §12). Le Guin is in some ways similar to a socialist humanist such as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who in the essay "In Praise of Inconsistency" pointed out that an acceptance of contradiction did not automatically result in a simple balance based on a reconciliation of opposites:

Inconsistency is simply a refusal once and for all to choose beforehand between any values whatever which mutually exclude each other. A clear awareness of the eternal and incurable antinomy in the world of values is nothing but conscious inconsistency, though inconsistency is more often practiced than proclaimed.3

Kolakowski—who shares Shevek's fate of an exile from a "closed" society—suggests that inconsistency which is an "awareness of the contradictions in this world" is "a consciously sustained reserve of uncertainty."4 With Le Guin as with Shevek, the uncertainty is an important aspect of the balance, for wholeness is only gained in a process of change and the process of change is only raised to consciousness through her ambiguous utopian dialectic.


1. The rather striking parallel between the situation on the glacier and the conclusion of Poe's The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym is pointed out in David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old (New York: Anchor, 1974), p. 88. The ambivalent use of the situation and of the color white suggests a wider range of American writing, all of which Le Guin seems conscious of. Melville's Typee and Moby Dick are immediate points of reference for aspects of the situation and the treatment of the color white. Le Guin has a deep affinity with the American literary tradition, especially its New England aspects, and a fuller investigation of her work from this point of view would be of value. Much of her utopianism appears to echo traditions emanating from Thoreau, her interest in yin-yang and balance echoes Emerson, and her interest in black and white contrasts echoes Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. Perhaps the most striking reminder of New England is the use of "walls" in The Dispossessed, with its obvious ironies directed towards a philosophy such as that examined in Robert Frost's "Mending Wall." There would appear to be a strong though again ambiguous connection between such a Puritan or Yankee tradition and Le Guin's sensibility, which manifests itself in descriptions such as those of the rigors of Karhide or the asceticism of Anarres.

2. Ursula K. Le Guin, "Is Gender Necessary?," in Aurora: Beyond Equality, ed. Susan J. Anderson and Vonda McIntyre (in press at New York: Fawcett, 1975).

3. Leszek Kolakowski, Toward a Marxist Humanism (New York: Grove, 1968), pp. 216-17.

4. Ibid., p. 214. The problem of inconsistency and uncertainty implicit in the "ambiguous" dialectics ought to be considered in relation to the role of hope in utopias, for both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed end on a note of uncertainty but hope. See "On Hope the Principle," Ernst Bloch, A Philosophy of the Future (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), Man on His Own (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), and three essays of his in Maynard Solomon ed., Marxism and Art (New York: Random House, 1974); and about Bloch, for example, Jurgen Habermass, "Ernst Bloch—A Marxist Romantic," Salmagundi No. 10-11 (Fall 1969-Winter 1970), 311-25, and Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).


The 20th century has seen the growth of the social sciences and the "humane sciences" as one of its more important developments in speculative thought, a fact increasingly reflected in the concepts and plots of writers of SF, including utopian fiction. Le Guin occupies a significant role among the SF writers who use concepts from the social sciences: her work addresses issues of cultural interaction, cultural growth, communication, and the differences between fictional but always parabolic (metaphoric) "highly intelligent life-forms." Among works by Le Guin addressed in this essay are The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions; other writers discussed include Thomas More (Utopia), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and the Polish philosopher Keszek Kolakowski.

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