Amy J. Ransom
Three Genres, One Author: Recent Scholarship on Ursula K. Le Guin
Marek Oziewicz. One Earth, One People: The Mythopoeic Fantasy Series of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle and Orson Scott Card. Foreword by Brian Attebery. Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy 6. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. vi + 263 pp. $35 pbk.
Warren G. Rochelle. Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2001. xii + 195 pp. £45 hc; £20 pbk.
Tony Burns. Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature: Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dispossessed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/ Lexington, 2008. x + 319 pp. $85 hc.
Susan M. Bernardo and Graham J. Murphy. Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion. Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. xiii + 199 pp. $65 hc.
Ursula K. Le Guin has been labeled a man-hating feminist and not feminist enough, a utopian thinker and an anti-utopian critic, a radical anarchist and a conservative realist.1 The range of opinions alone points toward the richness and polyvalence of her work, and whichever positions you take, you simply cannot deny the importance of her contributions to the genres of sf, fantasy, and utopia. Like other recent Le Guin scholarship, the four works reviewed here underscore her significance not only as a writer, but also as a contemporary thinker. These works span the breadth and depth of academic discourse, each representing a different type of study. Ranging from the introductory reference work to the monograph dedicated to a single novel, they all confirm Le Guin’s commitment to a literature of hope.
Marek Oziewicz’s One Earth, One People: The Mythopoeic Fantasy Series of Ursula K. Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle and Orson Scott Card offers a new terminology and definition for the specific type of fantasy initiated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56). He argues that practitioners of “mythopoeic fantasy,” including Le Guin, participate in the construction of a “new mythology,” which seeks to unite humanity to ensure a peaceful future for Earth. Working from what he identifies as a “holistic perspective,” Oziewicz undertakes an equally ambitious project, vast in scope (identifying a discrete genre and providing detailed analyses of exemplary multi-volume works by four authors) and broadly interdisciplinary in its approach (literary theory and criticism, myth studies, religious studies, psychology, philosophy, and popular science, among other fields). Rigorously documented, with a massive bibliography and endorsed by Brian Attebery, One Earth, One People—even if the reader remains skeptical about some of its conclusions—represents an important contribution not only to Le Guin studies, but to fantasy criticism in general in its attempt to synthesize a central theory for what is currently its best-known branch.
The book’s organization reflects the weight of Oziewicz’s theoretical agenda, with over half its pages devoted to the history of fantasy theory and the bases for his definition of “mythopoeic fantasy.” The remaining chapters each explore one aspect of this “new mythology,” approached from a different realm of intellectual inquiry, as found in four fantasy series. These include: “Rediscovering Harmony: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Sequence (1964-2000),” “Bridging the Past with the Future: Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (1964-1973),” “Integrating Science and Spirituality: Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet (1962-1986),” and “Reconnecting with Nature: Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker (1987-2003).” I will focus here on Oziewicz’s theory and its pertinence to Le Guin’s work.
In chapter one, Oziewicz seeks to untangle “The Confusion over Fantasy and the Confusions of the Theoretical Era” through an extensive review of the literature, which flows into subsequent chapters. He attributes the inadequacy of fantasy scholarship to a larger problem endemic to Western intellectual endeavors: the tendency toward reductionist systems of analysis. In chapter two, “Reductionist and Holistic Criticism in a Battle of Worldviews,” Oziewicz provides a who’s who list, identifying Rabkin, Attebery, Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, and L’Engle as among those sharing his holistic bent. Because Oziewicz himself does not distinguish clearly between fantasy and “the fantastic,” an error he attributes to Tzvetan Todorov, Lucie Armitt, Rosemary Jackson, and Christine Brooke-Rose, his critique of their ”reductionist” approaches fails to convince.2 Furthermore, Oziewicz never outlines the distinction between “mythopoeic fantasy” and neighboring genres or subgenres, such as the fantastic or sf. Adopting the approach that “fantasy is a mode, a worldview, and a cognitive stance on reality” expressed in “a number of genres,” he invokes Brian Attebery’s paradigm of the fuzzy set (Strategies of Fantasy 12-13), placing mythopoeic fantasy at its core (83).
Oziewicz carefully establishes a lineage for his conception of “mythopoeic fantasy” in chapters two and three, tracing it back to George MacDonald’s essay “The Fantastic Imagination” (1893), Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” (1938/1947), C.S. Lewis’s essays, and Le Guin’s “The Child and the Shadow” (1975). This tradition points to, without specifically naming, the form he outlines here and its purpose “of sustaining the higher human faculties and awakening the sense of wonder, of the sacred, and of the human potential” (57). In chapter three Oziewicz finally defines “Mythopoeic Fantasy as a Modern Genre,” initiated by Tolkien and Lewis (65), organized around three central concepts: 1) a “conviction that the genre addresses our vital psychological, cultural and aesthetic needs”; 2) “the use of a secondary world in which everything is suffused with a moral sense”; and 3) the notion that “stories written in the genre must be mythopoeic; they must employ the regenerative powers of myth and mythmaking” (66). In addition to a page-long definition of mythopoeic fantasy as a “distinct genre with clear characteristics” (84), Oziewicz identifies its approach to plot, characterization, setting, and theme. Authorial intent also plays a key role in identifying mythopoeic fantasy, as does its psychological effect upon the reader. In such works, the author intends to make statements about how we should live in the world, and they should offer the positive, therapeutic effects attributed to myth itself, including the “belief in the ultimate conquest of death based on the perception of the essential oneness and continuity of life” (85). He establishes this role for myth in chapter four, “Twentieth-Century Rehabilitation of Myth and the Search for a New Story,” invoking the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliade. Oziewicz finds evidence in the fiction and essays of Le Guin, L’Engle, Alexander, and Card of their belief that fantasy represents a socially, ethically, and spiritually engaged response to the contemporary crisis by positing a “new mythology of unified humanity” (92).
The rigor established in Oziewicz’s theoretical chapters continues in his analytical chapters as he demonstrates mastery not only of the primary texts, but also the secondary literatures devoted to these writers. In his chapter on the Earthsea cycle, Oziewicz identifies the importance of myth and myth-making for Le Guin. This emphasis, along with her “personal understanding of Taoism” and her “holistic worldview,” imply to Oziewicz the message that “our planet’s viable future is contingent on whether humanity will discover a conceptual framework geared toward harmony and respectful coexistence” (119). Then he examines the “thematic and structural strands” in Earthsea that support his view that it is “an imaginative exploration of the new story for humanity” with harmony and balance as its keys (119).
Oziewicz demonstrates Le Guin’s commitment to socially responsible forms of art (128). The Earthsea cycle reflects a three-pronged quest for balance, including: 1) “the psychological quest for inner harmony and personal wholeness” (129); 2) “the social quest for a balanced harmonious relationship between men and women” (129); and 3) the “political quest for mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation between the people of different cultures and races” (130). The first element manifests itself through the development of individual characters in the first Earthsea trilogy: Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and Lebannen in The Farthest Shore (1972). The more recent Earthsea books, Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001), and Tales from Earthsea (2001), explore cross-gender relationships and develop more fully the social roles assigned to men and women in the Hardic and Kargish cultures. Finally, The Other Wind works toward a cooperative relationship not only between different human societies, but also between humans and dragons, and even between life and death. Oziewicz concludes this chapter by asserting that “each of the tales and novels comprising the Earthsea sequence deals with some particular division which must be restored if the protagonists are to survive and their world is to thrive” (143). In its thematization of the key role that balance, mutual understanding, and cooperation must play in a harmonious future for humanity, Le Guin’s work fulfills the goals of mythopoeic fantasy as a new mythology for humanity.
While Oziewicz’s masterful tone often implies that his ideas are new and stunning, in reality One Earth, One People recycles and synthesizes a large amount of existing material. This synthesis alone, though, is useful for those wishing to quickly work through the long and confusing history of fantasy theory, with the exception of the flawed critique of Todorovian approaches to fantasy. Oziewicz’s most valuable contribution to Le Guin studies turns upon his conception of mythopoeic fantasy. In the end, it explains the massive appeal of Le Guin’s work, which fulfills a basic human need for something beyond the positive materialist explanations of the universe. With his holistic, albeit unorthodox, approach, Oziewicz dares to go where few academics have gone before to achieve a deeper understanding of a particular literary corpus.
Oziewicz rightly identifies the “Utopian” goal of Le Guin’s work, the achievement of which is ultimately necessary for “a peaceful future for the planet … to rise above racism, sexism, religious and cultural prejudice, environmental abuse and retributive concepts of the past” (92). We find a similar position not only in two recent works that explicitly address the question of utopia as genre in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), but also in an earlier examination of myth and archetype in Le Guin’s fantasy and sf, Warren G. Rochelle’s Communities of the Heart: The Rhetoric of Myth in the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (2001). Rochelle asserts that these function rhetorically, serving “her argument for the importance of feminist and Native American solutions to our ways of making meaning” and “for value to be given to the subjective, the personal and private, the small, and the feminine” (xi). In this revised doctoral dissertation, the creative writer Rochelle brings an expertise in storytelling to theoretical discussions. A nicely succinct preface serves as an abstract for the work, which is divided into five chapters. The first provides the reader with theoretical material on the relationships among language, story, and myth, based in linguistics, anthropology, and psychology. Chapters two and three apply this theory, as well as discussions of utopia, to the Earthsea cycle, The Dispossessed, and Always Coming Home (1985). Rochelle’s original contribution to Le Guin scholarship lies in his insertion of her work not into the various branches of sf or fantasy studies, but into the broader framework of American studies.
In chapter four, “American Romantic/Pragmatic Rhetoric,” Rochelle outlines how Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Whitman employ a rhetoric that seeks “to mediate the tensions … between self and other, community and individual, public and private, big and small, linear progression and circular contingent growth” (114). He also attributes this technique, which resembles Oziewicz’s description of mythopoeic fantasy, to Le Guin. Rochelle connects the work of these American Romantic writers to that of philosopher C.S. Peirce and educational theorist John Dewey, as well as to the contemporary thinkers “Cornel West, Paulo Freire, Robert Coles, Mike Rose, Ann Berthoff and Karen Lefevre” (129). Like Le Guin, “they are calling for a paradigm shift from the primacy of Cartesian thinking” in our efforts to see and know the world, as well as in how we transmit, through educational methods, that knowledge (129). In his application of this theoretical material, Rochelle discusses Le Guin’s oeuvre in general, but focuses specifically on recent short stories in chapter five, “Communities of the Heart.” Rochelle sees in the collections A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994) and Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995), as well as in “Old Music and the Slave Women” (1999), expressions of the American romantic/pragmatic rhetoric, through which Le Guin argues for the creation of true community that acknowledges the tensions between the personal, private, individual good and that of the larger community.
Although much more targeted in scope, Rochelle’s examination of how Le Guin “revisions” myth prefigures to some extent Oziewicz’s broader scheme; both build on existing examinations of archetype and myth in her work. Rochelle draws upon feminist approaches to the myth of the hero, seeing in Le Guin’s work an answer to Jung’s and Campbell’s masculinist approaches. His second chapter, “The Monomyth Reimagined,” argues that Le Guin’s mythopoeic vision evolves to become “increasingly more radical in form” (33). That is, A Wizard of Earthsea focuses upon a male hero on a somewhat traditional knowledge quest that is dual in nature since Ged’s personal journey also ends with a public goal (in The Tombs of Atuan); but by the time of Tehanu the focus shifts to a female, non-hero figure whose interest appears fully private and personal. Finally, in the later novella “Dragonfly” (1997), a woman’s entrance violates the privileged male domain of the school for wizards on Roke, thus pointing toward changes to come.
Oziewicz also asserts “the visionary and subversive character of Le Guin’s writing” (127), but he only mentions the utopian aspects of her project. Rochelle, in contrast, spends all of chapter three discussing utopia in The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home not as a distinct literary genre, but as itself a myth. He correctly concludes that Le Guin practices an open-ended form of feminist utopian writing, an argument that might have been strengthened by discussions of prior articulations of this concept by Angelika Bammer and Lucy Sargisson. A further flaw appears in Rochelle’s difficulty in finding an appropriate terminology to deal with Le Guin’s incorporation of Native American thought and values in her fictional peoples. Statements such as “[t]hese naming practices are integral to Native American culture” (92) can be problematic in their implication of one, totalized “Native American” culture. They can be simply inaccurate in that not all Amerindian groups employ the practice referred to here of the use name and the secret, true name that Le Guin attributes to Earthsea’s Hardic peoples. And yet Rochelle’s assertion that Le Guin’s implementation and revision of “universal archetypes—the hero, the Noble Savage, the Golden Land— [which] have become local American archetypes, incorporated into the American national myth” (96) offers an intriguing explanation, if extended to sf and fantasy as a whole, of these genres’ exportability. That is, in their exploitation of archetypal figures, even though these are often rendered in a very Anglocentric fashion, the universal (or at least, Western) nature of the underlying archetypes and myths resonates with readers in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere.
Ultimately, for Rochelle, Le Guin’s fiction serves a didactic function as “a rhetoric that argues for a true human community, one of the heart, in which a human life can be lived with worth, honour and value” (173). To be such a utopian community, “that is always becoming, and thus always in process, always in mediation” (169), we must accept that knowledge is local and personal. Truth is therefore relative, contingent, and consensus-based; and knowledge is “fallible and subject to revision” and yet paradoxically also “a universal, an integrated whole” (169). Le Guin argues through the characters in her books that, if we do this, we can participate in a community of the heart. Rochelle’s conclusion is remarkably similar to Oziewicz’s assertion that “the Earthsea quest for harmony may be seen as a poetic idea and a metaphor for our present condition … as an exploration of an element of the new story for humanity we desperately need to spell out” (143).
Rochelle’s discussion of Le Guin’s sf, along with the Earthsea fantasy cycle as participating in her mythopoeic rhetorical project, implies a question left unanswered by Oziewicz. Is there a pendant to “mythopoeic fantasy,” a subgenre waiting to be labeled “mythopoeic science fiction”? Indeed, Oziewicz mentions Le Guin’s sf “thought experiments” that depict a unified humanity—the Ekumen of the Hainish cycle of novels and stories—in support of his thesis (128). What is The Dispossessed, with its ambiguous utopia of Anarres and the critical dystopia of Urras, if not a call for balance, albeit from a rational more than a symbolic or mythic standpoint?
Clearly, Le Guin’s fiction offers a vision of hope, the task of utopia according to Ernst Bloch’s landmark The Principle of Hope (1954-59). As Angelika Bammer explains it,“[r]eality can only be changed by transgressing the limits of what has been declared possible. Utopian thinking, as Bloch defined it, is such a transgression” (52). Le Guin’s fantasy and sf worlds transgress the limits of current possibility; they do not, however, offer a “template” for readers to follow. Two recent volumes dedicated solely to her “ambiguous utopia,” The Dispossessed,agree with this assessment, contrasting it with traditional conceptions of utopia as a blueprint for a model society.3 While the contributors to The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (2005), edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, largely concur with Rochelle and Oziewicz that Le Guin’s message is radical, one of their number, Tony Burns, makes precisely the opposite argument in his later book, Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature: Ursula K. Le Guin and The Dispossessed (2008).
Tony Burns remains in dialogue with the earlier collection, often commenting on its contributors’ essays; his basic thesis, however, diverges radically from the aims of Stillman and Davis. For Burns, while Le Guin the political activist may adhere to a radical anarchist politics, Le Guin the novelist offers a more conservative, “Center Hegelian” approach. And yet Burns, who positions himself on the Left (267), takes to task prior Marxist critiques that view Le Guin’s work as not revolutionary enough (269-73). Like Oziewicz, Burns offers a meticulously researched book that makes a somewhat maverick contribution to Le Guin studies, arguing that The Dispossessed is not a literary utopia per se, but rather “a novel about utopianism in politics” (115; emphasis in original).
In his introduction, and in chapters two, five, and six (“Science Fiction and the History of Utopian Literature: H.G. Wells, Zamyatin, and Le Guin,” “Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Utopian Literature,” and “Politics and Literature in the Writings of Ursula K. Le Guin”), Burns repeatedly asserts that The Dispossessed is not a literary utopia, not even a work of sf, but rather a novel in the nineteenth-century realist tradition. He does so from the outdated position that there is an inherent contradiction between the terms “sf novel” and “utopian novel” because these two forms do not adequately develop character, and that character, human psychology, is the primary concern of the novel.4 Similarly, while his bibliography includes more recent works in utopian theory, Burns seeks support for his distinction between sf and/or the literary utopia and the novel in respected, although now outdated, works by Gary Saul Morson and Robert C. Elliott.
Furthermore, an examination of Le Guin’s more recent fiction might have forced Burns to qualify his (generally accurate) position that as a novelist Le Guin is conservative, and that as a thinker she is a modern, rather than a postmodern. For example, Always Coming Home, at least superficially, borrows from a postmodern esthetic in its fragmented narration and its pastiche of a collection of anthropological artifacts. Both Rochelle and Oziewicz find evidence of an increasing radicalism in Le Guin’s recent fiction. In addition to the later Earthsea works that they mention, I can think of sf texts such as “The Shobies’ Story” (1990), which explores “transilience,” a phenomenon that will allow for the teleportation of humans. Major problems occur for the crew of the Shoby, as each of its members perceives the events of a test-run differently. In order to overcome the chaos of multiple perceptions, the crew calls upon its sense of community, and through “telling the story,” its members make their experience real (103). In this text, then, there is no concrete, essential reality; perception is central, but so is building consensus about what is happening and what has happened. The story resonates strongly with the positions of Oziewicz and Rochelle in its concluding suggestion that applying technology to transilience “would be a great event in the mind of his people—for all people. A new understanding. A new partnership. A new way of being in the universe” (103). While Burns may rightly identify Le Guin’s scientific realism in her earlier works, this later text questions the solidity of that position.
Nonetheless, while I strongly disagree with the conclusions Burns draws regarding the generic status of Le Guin’s novel, I find in his work valuable contributions, particularly when he sticks to what he knows—i.e., political philosophy. Not only does he clarify Le Guin’s debt to Yevgeny Zamyatin and We (1921), but also Burns increases our understanding of Le Guin’s dialectical thought as aligned with a Center Hegelian position (chapter three). Futhermore, he outlines her relationship to the various forms of anarchist politics (chapter eight) and clarifies the argument that Le Guin represents a modernist, rather than a postmodernist, approach, particularly in regard to science and ethics (chapters nine and four).
In this respect, Burns’s study succeeds in its goal “to explore the philosophical underpinnings of” Le Guin’s novel (1). It does not provide the grand revision of how we think about Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature that its title suggests. It also falls short, if I understand Burns’s introductory sentences correctly, as a contribution to “a project ... the aim of which is to introduce students of political theory to the concepts and issues which are central to that discipline using works of literature and film” (1). If he means this book to be a course text to fulfill that aim, I can only see advanced graduate students following its intricate arguments grounded in political philosophy (from the Heraclitus/ Parmenides debate on essentialism/relativism through Hegel, Nietzsche, and onward) and literary history and criticism. On the other hand, Burns’s study should be required reading for researchers working on Le Guin at the graduate level.
In contrast, with Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (2006) Susan Bernardo and Graham Murphy provide a useful, up-to-date reference work for intellectually-oriented fans, advanced high school and undergraduate students, and even graduate students and more advanced scholars in need of a thorough introduction to or a quick update on the foremost woman sf and fantasy writer today. To my knowledge, the last such volume, Suzanne Elizabeth Reid’s Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin, appeared in Twayne’s United States Authors series in 1997.As part of Greenwood’s series of handbooks on contemporary writers of popular literature, Bernardo and Murphy’s work follows a standardized format that facilitates access to the information it holds. Its fourteen chapters include a brief biography of Le Guin, two chapters introducing and situating her work within the genres of sf and fantasy, and eleven chapters treating in greater depth an individual work; bold face all-caps headings for each section enhance the user-friendly nature of the text. Each single-work chapter also includes a plot summary and sections on character development and themes. In addition, the “Alternate Readings” sections of each chapter provide a brief introduction to a range of theoretical approaches in language that is highly accessible yet academically sound. The authors provide not only a list of works cited in each chapter but also a complete bibliography of Le Guin’s oeuvre, an extensive secondary bibliography, an index, and a brief interview with Le Guin herself.
Certain stylistic differences and the background information provided for the two authors suggest that Murphy prepared the sf and Bernardo the fantasy sections. The chapter titled “The Literary Genealogy of Science Fiction and Ursula K. Le Guin” offers a definition and brief history of sf, as well as a discussion of Le Guin’s early novels and the universe of Hain and the Ekumen. Entire chapters treat (thus implying their importance) The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1973), The Dispossessed, The Eye of the Heron (1983), and The Telling (2000), offering “Alternate Readings” of these works from the perspectives of feminism, alternate history, utopia, colonial/postcolonial theory, and critical dystopia respectively. These alternate readings sections introduce the reader to one or two significant theoretical sources (Simone de Beauvoir, Lyman T. Sargent, Tom Moylan, Raffaella Baccolini). The chapter-length discussions of fantasy include A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, “The Finder” (Tales from Earthsea), and (treated together) “Dragonfly” and The Other Wind. Alternate readings introduce the researcher to Jung, Foucault, cultural readings, Taoism, feminism, eco-criticsm, and gender studies. Bernardo and Murphy’s analysis underscores the omnipresence of the theme of balance, derived from Taoist philosophy, in Le Guin’s opus, and I found the description of how Le Guin performed her translation of the Tao Te Ching enlightening. The authors clearly privilege the novel and Le Guin’s sf and fantasy. Only two of her short stories are discussed, and her poetry and the “mainstream” novel Malafrena (1979) are barely mentioned.
While the chapters on fantasy tend to rely on more “academic” sources, the biography and sf chapters suffer from an unfortunate reliance on internet sources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica Online (2006), for general information. I make this criticism from the standpoint that the print resource should offer more than what the researcher could find online herself. I found this, two errors in reproducing foreign names on page one, and a missed index reference, among my very few real criticisms of the work. The authors also perpetuate a relatively minor confusion in the discussion of A Wizard of Earthsea, referring consistently to Ged’s shadow double as “the gebbeth” when, in fact, the gebbeth was only one of many forms the entity took. I might not have noticed this except that Le Guin corrects it in Bernardo’s e-mail interview included in the text. Overall, though, I recommend this quality work for both public and academic (even some high school) library acquisition. Furthermore, the “Alternate Readings” also suggest its use as a textbook in a general education or lower-level college course that combines an “intro to theory” approach with the study of a single author.
Perhaps a necessary consequence of the current boom in utopian studies is that, riding on the trend’s coattails, a good number of works reach print that have not fully examined the most recent developments in the field. Burns’s volume on The Dispossessed, as well as many of the essays collected by Davis and Stillman,suffer in this respect. Conversely, the quest for utopia appears even in studies not directly engaged with that field, as seen in Rochelle’s and Oziewicz’s discussions of the utopian dimension to Le Guin’s mythopoeia. In spite of their differences, the works reviewed here contribute to an overall consensus about the significance of Le Guin’s work not only for sf, fantasy, and utopia, but also for contemporary literature and thought in general. Whether they call it open-ended utopia, mythopoeia, or the Taoist search for balance, these critics all agree that Le Guin has provided and continues to provide inspiration for readers from the 1960s to today. Perhaps this renewed critical interest in and reassessment of Le Guin’s work is itself a sign of the relevance of her message for change, of hope for the future.
1. Thomas Disch’s diatribe against Le Guin covers one pole of opinion: “Le Guin’s feminism is less overtly phobic of the male sex than that of Andrea Dworkin, but it is no less absolute. She requires nothing less ... than the abolition of Western civilization as we’ve known it and the (re)institution of a benevolent, holistic, shamanistic matriarchy” (125). In contrast, Sarah Lefanu problematizes Le Guin’s feminism, at least in her early novels (130-46), while Nadia Khouri questions her commitment to revolutionary politics (52-53).
2. Todorov’s The Fantastic in Literature refers to a distinct canon of texts and derives from French theories of the fantastique articulated by Roger Caillois and others. Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion makes clear that the “fantastic” refers to works such as those of “Poe, Dinesen, Maupassant, Gautier, Kafka, Lovecraft” and not those of “Kingsley, Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, or Richard Adams,” whom she correctly identifies as writers of “fantasy” (Jackson 9, qtd. in Oziewicz 43). In contrast with Oziewicz, Farah Mendlesohn nicely handles this issue in The Rhetorics of Fantasy, providing a taxonomy for a range of subgenres, including the Liminal Fantasy, which is similar to but reproblematizes Todorov’s definition of the fantastic.
3. Peter Stillman states this most poignantly: “In addition to the critique and warning, Le Guin also holds out hope. The hope is, however, not in a utopia as a blueprint[;] … Annarres is too ‘ambiguous’ to be copied.... The hopeful future lies in the knowledge that Anarres exists as an ongoing and feasible attempt to create and live in a better world, a continuing process or seeking of freedom and mutuality” (68). See Nicholas Birns’s review of this work in SFS 34.1 (Mar. 2007): 129-31.
4. Had Burns invoked the novel/romance dichotomy, which aligns sf with romance rather than the novel, this argument might have passed; but given trends in both the writing of novels and literary criticism since 1950, defining the novel as the psychological novel seems today an untenable position. In the 1976 essay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown,” upon which Burns bases his interpretation of her intentions for The Dispossessed, Le Guin admits that such a definition of the novel may no longer be “critically fashionable at the moment” (102).
Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.
Bammer, Angelika. Partial Visions: Feminism and Utopianism in the 1970s. London: Routledge, 1991.
Caillois, Roger. “Au Coeur du fantastique.” Cohérences aventureuses. Paris: Gallimard, 1965. 71-192.
Davis, Laurence, and Peter Stillman, eds. The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington, 2005.
Disch, Thomas. The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. 1998. New York: Touchstone, 2000.
Elliott, Robert C. The Shape of Utopia: Studies in a Literary Genre. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1970.
Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981.
Khouri, Nadia. “The Dialectics of Power: Utopia in the Science Fiction of Le Guin, Jeury, and Piercy.” SFS 7.1 (Mar. 1980): 49-60.
Lefanu, Sarah. Feminism and Science Fiction. 1988. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.” 1976. The Language of the Night. New York: Putnam’s, 1979. 101-20.
─────. “The Shobies’ Story.” 1990. A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. New York: HarperPrism, 1994. 75-106.
Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008.
Morson, Gary Saul. The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writerand the Traditions of Literary Utopia. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth. Presenting Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Sargisson, Lucy. Contemporary Feminist Utopianism. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Stillman, Peter G. “The Dispossessed as Ecological Political Theory.” The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Ed. Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington, 2005. 55-74.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic in Literature. 1970. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.