Science Fiction Studies

#7 = Volume 2, Part 3 = November 1975

Rafail Nudelman

An Approach to the Structure of Le Guin's SF

Translated by Alan G. Myers

I felt that the book itself had become what it treated of, i.e. a musical construct.—Thomas Mann

Ursula K. Le Guin's early work is marked by an artistic originality as pronounced as it is elusive. The seeming impossibility of defining this originality teases the imagination. It begins to seem urgently necessary to analyze what this aesthetic world "represents" before attempting to speak of what it "expresses."

1. The Textual Structure. The first and most obvious characteristic of Le Guin's early tales—Rocannon's World (RW), Planet of Exile (PE), City of Illusions (CI), and The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD)—is their interconnectedness. They have a common subject of narration—a science-fictional "union of space civilizations" (League of All Worlds or Ekumen) to which they all relate as separate episodes.

This is a fairly widespread phenomenon in literature as a whole and particularly in the "younger" literary genres. Le Guin's originality shows clearly already in the characteristic connections each tale has to the others and to the whole. It is normal in SF for a causal connection to exist between episodic tales: the upshot of events of a preceding episode prepares, directly or indirectly, the point of departure for the following tale (e.g., Heinlein, Asimov, the Strugatskys). Accordingly, the episodes are in a simple, chronological order, and take place in a unified space. Such a science-fictional model of history is equivalent to a natural-science picture of the universe on which the fruitful extrapolations of SF are generally based.

This type of interconnectedness is not the only one possible. In a series of adventure tales (e.g. Fenimore Cooper's, or Harry Harrison's Deathworld series), the causal relationships between the episodes amount, in the main, to a purely chronological sequence; the starting point of one tale ignores what has occurred in the preceding one (trivial details apart). Put in another way, the temporal flow becomes indifferent to the events occurring within that time: qualitative changes are absent from the universe of the adventure novel. Space in such novels is also neutral, whatever the outcome of events. Time and space have features of what Newton termed absolute time or empty duration and empty or absolute space; endless proliferation of episodes is a possibility inherent in the adventure-story series.

The disintegration of space-time is even clearer in the series of detective tales unified by a common hero (Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, etc.). The peculiarities of that genre require a more rigid replication of the highly formalised structure— including the stereotyped starting situations. This precludes any possibility of a causal link between detective-tale episodes, and at the same time sharply defines their space-time. The concept of a "series" is purely conventional here, since any separate episode implies in its structure an infinite number of possible repetitions.

Le Guin's SF fits none of the categories so far mentioned. Looking at it one way, it seems to be organised on chronological principles, since the various tales can be placed in a certain temporal sequence. At first sight , moreover, they constitute a future history drawn with a dotted line—the rise and fall of the League of All Worlds. On the other hand, however, the starting points of all her tales are virtually identical (will a particular world be enabled to join the League?). Thus, every situation repeats the essential raison d'être of the League's activities—a movement from fragmentation toward unity.

At the same time, Le Guin's tales are not linked as episodes of a larger whole either spatially or temporally. This may seem to contradict my earlier assertion of the possibility of a chronological order for the episodes. Strictly speaking, however, that ordering does not depend on any direct connection between the events of various tales, but rather on their indirect relationship: each episode, considered separately, relates to the history of the League as a whole. In and by themselves, Le Guin's tales are sharply isolated from each other. Their temporal relationship is deliberately blurred: though there may be some ostensible indications to the contrary, there exists no common time-scale. Furthermore, close inspection causes League history itself to blur out of focus. We know nothing of its crucial events, their course or their consequences, just as we know nothing of the League itself, either its organisation or its functions—apart from its function as a unifier of worlds. It is no coincidence that in LHD the Ekumen is defined as a mystical idea rather than a concrete organisation. What, then, are these episodes of a non-existent "history" about? It would perhaps be most accurate to say that they tell of the separate stages through which the abstract idea or process of unification must of necessity pass. In actual fact, the first four of Le Guin's tales depict, essentially, four stages in the development of this idea: a world being drawn into the League or Ekumen (LHD); a world in the early stages of such involvement (RW); a world which has virtually lost its former ties with the League (PE), and finally, a world torn away from the League and striving to return to it (CI).1 One might note that this last episode can be regarded as the first part of a new cycle, a new spiral in the League's history, which is the Ekumen—a fact which serves to emphasize the difficulty of assigning any kind of definite chronology within the sequence of tales. Only the whole has an absolute significance, since it possesses neither beginning nor end.

The episodes' separateness in time is complemented by the isolation of their events in space. The worlds of the various tales are not only lost in time, they are also ignorant of the coordinates, the very existence of each other. The space which the League embraces is united and linked only in the sense that it all makes up the League's space; there is no unified system of coordinates or reference points, no grid of relative distances. The only way of defining each planet's position is in relation to the central planets of the League—usually at a monstrous distance. The events in each episode invariably take place on the very edge of the known cosmos, in fearful isolation from its "centre" and from each other; in other words, on the frontier of League territory and "alien" space. The peripheralness, the frontier nature of the spatial situation in each episode is analogous to the peculiar temporal situation. The stages of "League history" symbolised in the various episodes are also "frontier" stages. They do not cover the central areas of this "history," only its initial and final phases, its frontiers.

We begin to sense an odd law obtaining here: the particular instance is always and in every respect "remote" from the central nucleus, the whole which is being suggested; the actual sign is remote from the general meaning it signifies. The League is never itself shown—it is merely an invariable presence in the given situation. dictating an invariable type of reality. The League has no concrete history of its own—but the universal phases of its development are eternally played out in the histories of real worlds, making up the canvas of their events. The League is not located in observable space, it is always in the unreachable "centre of the universe"—but it is the unchanging centre of reference of each episode. On the common-sense level this is made clear by the fact that the universes of the various episodes are "simply" the same universe. But this simplicity is deceptive. Everything connected with the League has a suspicious touch of ambiguity: the very image of the League is constantly ambivalent, sometimes hardening into the representation of a wholly real social structure, then again blurring into a nebulous universal metaphysical concept. The same thing happens with space and time. With Le Guin, time does not flow on from episode to episode, since the episodes are dissociated and isolated; nevertheless, within the frame of each episode the time-flow is real. Such a peculiar, contradictory temporal reality is, in fact, a concrete instance of a sort of "supra-time" within which the history of the League develops, expanding to the dimensions of the universe's eternal history and only content. As for the space in each episode, it too is, like the duration, totally enclosed and without continuation. In other words, it holds within itself the whole universe, with its centre (the League) materialising, so to speak, in an actual world in any particular episode. The spatial reality of this world is also ambivalent: it is both the reality of a particular concrete world, and simultaneously a symbolic arena containing the whole universum with its unique metaphysical reality—the League, its history, and its destiny.

The sensation we have as if the entire universe were "fed into" the finite, localised, sharply concretised space-time of each episode, originates in the peculiar nature of the interconnection between the episodes—or, more accurately, in the absence of their interconnection. It is this very impossibility of extending local space-time beyond the limits of a particular given universe which gives rise to the feeling that beyond those bounds there is "nothing at all," that the material universe comes to an end: a circle of light and beyond it an impenetrable, endless darkness. The universe of a given episode seems to contain within itself the whole of space and to replicate the eternal history of all there is. Events there take on the character of universal laws. In each succeeding tale they unfold along the same lines—in an analogous area "unique in the universe," lost in space and time; it begins with the same, as it were hallowed situation; it develops towards the same conclusion. This fact can only signify one thing—we are faced with a universal order of things, hallowed by time, obligatory for all worlds.

Without losing its concreteness, reality grows more and more symbolic; behind it appear the lineaments of a universal scheme repeating itself in each episode, a general law of being, an eternally self-replicating order of things, "mystically" embodied in the League of All Worlds. The League is a unity of a peculiar kind—not the sum of its parts but rather a common factor, an essential constant derived from them. The universe described by such a model is not, of course, the non-metaphysical universe of modern science used by the run-of-the-mill SF. Or, to be strictly accurate, it is not only that, for in Le Guin's SF there is indeed a realistic foreground. Clear inspection, however, reveals a second dimension which we must term "mythopoetic." For it is in this "second universe" that objects and phenomena lay bare their hidden universal significance and supra-historical law of being.

Le Guin's SF is thus seen to be not only a narrative concerning real problems, but also an attempt to communicate a higher truth persistently recurring in all of life's ephemeral aspects.

But have we enough evidence to assert the existence of this universal hidden meaning in Le Guin's SF? So far, we have established only one of its main peculiarities—the replacement of the sequential linkage "from episode to episode," normal in any chronological series of tales (and tantamount to the formula "the whole is the sum of the parts") by another—distinctly original, it is true—radial type of linkage: "from a single centre towards each episode" (tantamount to: "the whole is the essence or common factor of its parts"). This is equivalent to the presence of a structural similarity or analogy of the part (episode) to the whole, as well as of each separate episode to any other episode. This identifies the essential structural principle of this SF—its thorough iconicity: in it, the "lower" level of the narrative form is a similarity, an image, the isomorphic sign of a more general or "higher" formal level. This holds good not only for the very highest forms of organisation—the "series of tales" and the separate tales. The actual world of each individual episode is also an equivalent or similarity—in this case, the equivalent of the universe of the League. Thus, lineaments of the omnipresent scheme of Le Guin's appear also in her narrative forms.

The world of each tale is formally one—one planet, in fact. The familiar Le Guin scheme reveals itself in that there is never in this world any actual unity— governmental, cultural, or any other. The planet-world is always presented as a conglomerate of two or more cultures, sometimes merely co-existing, sometimes almost inimical. Genuine unity invariably turns out to be the goal toward which the events of the narrative proceed; it is always—to come. If on the preceding level of the universe the goal of events was unity within the League, now the same events as it were replicate an analogous movement toward unity, but this time on a planetary scale.

The starting point too is reiterated, also on a diminished scale. On the previous, more generalised level, the hero or heroes acted as an element in the relationship of the League of All Worlds towards the individual world; he was the League's representative on an alien planet. Now, putting aside this mask, he discovers a second beneath it, exactly similar to the first: he invariably turns out to be the willing or unwilling representative of one of the planetary cultures (the planet has conditionally become "his") in the habitat of another, "alien" culture. Sometimes it transpires as the story develops (RW, LHD), but it is always presented before the plot really gets under way. This is all the easier to recognise since all of Le Guin's plot developments are of the same type—they are without fail worked out as a journey, a travelling through spacetime. There are fundamental reasons for this of which more later; even the single exception (PE) merely confirms how real these reasons are. The starting-point mentioned above is always presented as given at the moment when this journey begins. And under this mask too, another lurks: a man among those who are similar to himself but always "other."

The world in which the hero undertakes his journey bears a striking resemblance to the universe of the League. It is always a world where separateness, fragmentation, alienation are dominant; lonely farmsteads of Earthmen dotted about an endless forest (CI), aborigine settlements separated by enormous distances (RW) or colonial towns and native stamping grounds (PE), states which co-exist but are isolated by an ice-desert and a sea (LHD). The planetary space too lacks any unified, definite grid of coordinates or reliable landmarks; it is fragmented into isolated islets of life separated by vast, mysterious, lifeless wastes. The life islets are not only not linked, but are not even located relative to one another. The space that divides them is always and emphatically of the same type—an all-embracing forest, or similarly unrelieved ice, sea or snow. If life is organisation and structure, then the wastes that divide the islets of planetary life are the negation of life, shapeless, unstructured, monotonous, same. Their dead uniformity hems in the interspersed dots of organised existence.

It is quite clear that this space, repeated from tale to tale, is analogous to the space of the League universe: the same scattered islets of life lost on the rim of the universe, the same formless murk encroaching on them from every side and seeming to embody the principle of alienation. The space on the planet turns out to be an iconic sign for the universe, and is organised like it, according to the same, universal scheme.

We might descend even lower, to the space of each separate cell on the planet-worlds (the woodland farm in CI; the township in PE; etc.). Each succeeding level reveals fresh details, and the universal similarity, being expressed in other realia, becomes less and less exact; yet here too it is possible to recognise familiar, if faded, indications. The motif of separation is repeated with unvarying regularity— this time the cells are enclosed by walls, partitions; visions of empty rooms and enormous halls appear before us, in which there live lonely people—usually apart from one another. Estraven's house, and the Inner Hearth of his father are like this (LHD), as are the houses on the forest farms (CI), and the habitations in the colonists' townships (PE). The Shing "City of Illusion" itself, with its kaleidoscope of unseen walls emphasizing the illusory nature of any kind of human intimacy, becomes a concentrated, almost allegorical expression of this apartness. The opposite phenomenon—the large congregations of people which appear now and again in Le Guin's pages—are most often purely mechanical groupings, united, as a rule, in a negative way (the cave folk in RW, the troglodyte horde in PE, the herdsmen in CI, etc.). Even on the level of human relationships one senses a certain cool aloofness, a certain unsurmounted distance and isolation which makes even closely bound people lonely; it is enough to recall the colonists' council in PE, everyday life in the House of CI, or the Foretellers' monastery in LHD. Man, that final atom of creation, usually appears in Le Guin's SF as a solitary being. Solitude is his involuntary form of existence. His status is equivalent, in the descending order of magnitude, to the status of the League cosmos, of the given planet, and of that islet of life where he lives and whose laws his being reflects. As a microcosm, man is truly similar to the macrocosm, and the same universal law of fragmentation which governs the life forms at all levels, rules him too. The "involuntary" nature of this form of existence, its unnaturalness, is quite obvious—it is not by chance that on every level the scattered elements strive toward oneness. The events of the narrative which form its plot manifest themselves on the level of human destinies as the movement of the hero toward oneness with other human creatures.

Thus, moving from level to level in the thematic structure, we observe a repeating image at every stage: a universe which has lost its unity, and is agonizingly groping its way back to it.

As for time, just as in the universe of the League there exist only local times, without relation to each other, and the endlessly cyclical history of the League itself, so, on the level of the sundered society of each planet, no other unified time exists except the cyclical changes of the seasons. Not a single one of these worlds possesses a coherent chronology of historical events; the reckoning of years is, as a rule, lost; the islets of life are not only separated in space, they are enclosed in their own local temporal flow—they have no common history. The sole form of historical recollection is therefore legend, tradition, myth, and the events in each tale, weaving into this mytho-historical temporal fabric, also take on a mythopoetic colouring. Behind the realistic meaning of the events there appears their second, mythico-universal significance of movement toward Oneness, as toward the natural condition of the World.2 This movement will however, have to be a directed one. For normal time in such a world is static and merely reproduces itself over and over as inane activity, marked only by the elementary signs of birth and death. It is not for nothing that in the universe of LHD time-reckoning starts again each new year, which is always the year zero. Its past is legend, its future—only a sequence of repetitions of the past. All that lies on either side of the present, lacking the landmarks of historical events, imperceptibly slides into the amorphous, motionless temporal continuum of myth. It is not only that the time of a given world contains within itself the whole time of the universe; it is not only that the time of any part of that world contains, in its turn, the whole of its time; more than this: every instant contains within itself all of time, it becomes equivalent to a day, a year, a century, eternity.

Thus, Le Guin's SF establishes a vertical hierarchy of similarities or equivalents: the universe—the world of the individual planet—the islets of life on it—the individual person. The structure of all these levels is organised following a single scheme, the universe can be seen in a grain of sand. On every level we see a World or Universe of collapsing bonds, sundered space, arrested time, a World frozen in amorphous eventlessness and awaiting a second creation—the establishment of order.

To a certain extent this world picture is echoed in the purely formal articulation of Le Guin's SF. The series of tales breaks down into major episodes—the tales themselves; these, in turn, break down into a series of episodes threaded along the plot-line; if we can regard the entire tale as being the journey of a League emissary, then the central episode within it is also seen to be a journey, in its turn resolved into a chain of episodes. In these transitions from level to level, the scale of the objects drawn into the events gets smaller and smaller. In the central episode of the "elementary journey" we see the most elementary entity still capable of bearing the two basic principles of fragmentation and oneness. Such an entity is two people. The hierarchy of formal articulation repeats the structural hierarchy, and the formal atom of Le Guin's SF, its tiniest episode and its object, coincides with its structural atom. Spatio-temporal movement—from one life islet to another—takes on, at this final or atomic level, its limit-form. Finally, such an isolated "islet in the universe" is simply man, each man. The way to a united universe goes through the reunification of people; the way to a league between individual people becomes a sign and equivalent for a way to cosmic unification.

This repetition of identical thematic structures in all of Le Guin's tales leads to a parallelism between their formal structures. They coincide in compositional construction, in plot episodes, and even, finally, in the regularity with which similar motifs and situations occur at identical nodal points in the tales. As an example of such regularity we may take the constant background against which the climax of the "Hero's journey" is played out. In Le Guin's work this is always snow, boundless snowy or icy wastes. Rocannon's friend and travelling companion perishes among icy peaks—through Rocannon's fault; Falk in CI finds his companion and betrayer in a snowstorm; Genly Ai and Estraven find the way to one another (and the gulf between them) on an icy plateau—that very ice on which Estraven will die (LHD). Snow is the culmination of the Way, and by that token, also of the way for people toward each other. Therefore, the most important human relationships, those which bind and sunder people, come into being on the snow—Love and Death, Friendship and Treachery. It is no accident—though it has a purely local significance also—that in LHD, which sums up all the motifs of Le Guin's SF up to that time, Life itself is born on the snows (see the creation myth of the first people, §17).

Summing up, we can say that the artistic originality of Le Guin's SF is first and foremost the originality of a strong musically organised form, frankly thrust into the foreground. The all-pervading "vertical" similarity or equivalence (the iconicity or isomorphic relationship of each sign to its meaning) and the all-pervading "horizontal" parallelism (between corresponding formal elements of different works) resemble musical recurrence, that persistence with which a pervasive theme expresses itself in variations. Placing Le Guin's narratives as it were one on top the other, we would find something resembling an X-ray picture where the coinciding elements are intensified and stand out more sharply, the differences in local detail are effaced, and the nodes and joints of the "skeletal" universal structure stand out against a ghostly aura of fictional flesh. These pervading motifs—this skeleton of concrete form—create in their interweaving a complex musical structure, conveying a certain message.

Thus, it is characteristic of Le Guin's SF that its structure becomes a sign of its message. Moreover, this structure is an iconic sign, i.e. the properties of the structure are similar or equivalent to the content of the message; the content of the message is translated into the language of the peculiar features of the structure. The essence of what is expressed is indicated by the nature of the means of expression; the form of the sign is its meaning.

We may conclude, therefore, that the dominating principle of Le Guin's SF—the repetition of the universal scheme on all its levels—is a message, expressed in the language of fictional structures, about the universality of a world-order in which, on every level of being, one finds the same laws which govern Le Guin's fictional world. Proceeding from the fictional structure to the Universe encoded by it, we can almost physically sense the way in which the sundered and scattered structure of a world-model, trembling in its surge towards Oneness, by imperceptible degrees shows forth the construction of that very World—a universe of disassociated, agonisingly isolated forms, ever seeking amalgamation. The non-fictive World which stands behind Le Guin's SF is an artistically organised whole where universal relationships of form obtain. Being universal, they are inevitably embodied in the structure of any real phenomenon or event, and therefore in the structure of any "true" fictional narrative concerning them. This reciprocal equivalence guarantees the possibility not only of expressing reality in fictional form, but also of reflecting certain fundamental characteristics of the World as a whole.3 Such a fictional text, richly reflecting reality, becomes at the same time a sign—equivalent of the universal "Text" or universal "Laws of the World."

Furthermore, Le Guin's message concerning the World exists only in her creative work, taken as a whole, in all the multiplicity of its concrete episodes; it is not fully expressed in any particular instance. This separation between sign and meaning also holds true for all levels. The world of each planet, belonging to the general—to the League of All Worlds—is at the same time emphatically distant and isolated from it. The situation of each hero, being a sign for the general existential situation of man in the world, is a concrete fictional form of an extreme isolation (a Crusoe-like existence on an inhabitable island, solitude among aliens). The same principle of separating and isolating "sign" and "meaning" can be observed in the image-system. The invariable background for the most dramatic plot-climaxes is a monotonous and indifferent expanse of ice or snow. The drama is estranged by the indifferent background, and the feeling by terse speech—for even on the verbal level the distance between the sign (the word) and the meaning (thought-feeling) is preserved. The more "neutral" a segment of text, the more plastic and rich in nuance the verbal texture, leaving virtually nothing unsaid; the closer to the "epicentre of complexity," however, the more routine and ritualised the word becomes—and the more ambiguous the meaning.

Thus, on every level of content and form, corresponding elements—by their similarity to those higher placed "vertically," along with their repetitions and echoes "horizontally"—indicate that they belong to some higher generality, in which their meanings merge. By this, they escape one-dimensional "realism" and leave a margin of ambiguity, room for an indefiniteness which does not permit a living and complex thought to turn into allegorical rationalism.

These relationships of coalescence-noncoalescence which permeate Le Guin's universe of fictional forms make it possible to define them as symbolic forms, in the Hegelian sense. The fragmentation and isolation of individual forms of being, and the urge it engenders for amalgamation—such is the depth-image of the universe which this SF impresses upon us. The immanent aspiration of all forms toward a higher oneness constitutes a kind of cosmic Plot, a History of the Universe, its Way; and the plots of the separate books are the individual manifestations ("signs-equivalents") of that Plot. As always in Le Guin, these particular plots do not cover or exhaust their general meaning. In other words, the general is not fully realised in the particular, the cosmic Plot is never fulfilled. The natural "completion" of each individual plot is, from the viewpoint of the cosmic Way, merely a transitional stage.4 The separate plots form, therefore, a meaningful series, describing the attainment of ever higher levels of unity for all rational life-forms.5 And it is this all-pervading inner movement of one idea from tale to tale that sharply distinguishes Le Guin's sequence of tales from the cognitively "empty" character of detective or adventure series.

2. The Plot Structure. A proper examination of Le Guin's fictional structure would entail a further discussion of at least her plot and image structures (and in fact this whole article is the smaller part of an unpublished Ms. in which I examine these aspects too). Here I can only give a succinct approach to an examination of her plot structure.

The movement towards Oneness on the planetary scale is absorption into the League; within the planet, it is the reunification of a fragmented society; on the individual level, it is the striving toward fellow-beings and unification with them. The reunification of a world means not only the restoration of links within a human collective but also the "knitting together" of its physical space-time, since the unity of the collective presumes a consciousness of its spatial integrity and historic continuity. In Le Guin's work, therefore, each stage of cosmic history, regarded as a recurrent reunification, is played out as spatio-temporal movement or Journey. The spatial movement of the hero stitches together, so to speak, the isolated islets of life; this can be clearly seen in the journeys of Falk, Rocannon, or Genly Ai. The history of his wanderings, the temporal aspect of the journey, introduces direction and irreversibility into a formerly static world, since its eventual result is a qualitative renewal of that world; it brings into the world a fulness of time, historically. The hero's history becomes the beginning of history for a previously ahistorical world. The journey (the "means") on its space-time level is isomorphic to the universal Way (the "ends") which it embodies. The hero brings into a formerly cyclic world the ends or goal which it previously lacked; since the goal has to be reached by overcoming space and time, movement toward it becomes a spatio-temporal journey. In this way the plot structure takes on a resemblance to the spatio-temporal structure of the culture-hero myth, and through it, to certain types of later, magical fairy tale.6

Le Guin's heroes have the mission of attaching a lower-level culture to a higher (finally—to a universal) one. Culture is here interpreted as a unity retaining variety (i.e. the resistance to absorption shown by all unique life-forms), as a structural unity—in contrast to Nature as an unstructured monotony. The plot structure, therefore, not only has a natural starting point but also a natural conclusion—the attainment of the goal; yet, Le Guin's plot remains in essence open-ended. Superficially, this might seem to bring Le Guin's type of tale close to either the detective or the adventure tale. However, there are fundamental differences. For in the detective tale the natural conclusion of the plot disposes fully of its logical subject; therefore, the conclusion is an absolute end to the events, a return of the universe to its equilibrium and order. This is only possible in a closed universe, isolated from non-fictional reality, such as the detective-tale universe is. Its plot has, as it were, a circular or cyclical character, which is correlative to the character of that universe. The adventure-tale, on the other hand, had no natural conclusion at all, since to its subject-matter—the overcoming of a given danger, difficulty, et sim.—a second, third, etc., danger can always be added. This results in a potentially infinite linear character of the plot. In each particular episode such a plot movement is akin to the Journey (so that adventure novels often take just that form), but as a whole it differs from the journey by not being able ever to dispose fully of its logical (as different from its accidental, given) subject.

Thus, the detective tale is both formally and logically a closed structure; the adventure-tale is in each particular episode closed, but in its entirety it is an open-ended structure. In contrast to both, the "Journey tale" of Le Guin's type is formally closed—i.e. a tale with a formal conclusion—but logically open-ended. In Le Guin's tales the initial and final situations are superficially similar: Falk-Ramarren (CI) comes from nowhere and returns to nowhere; Genly Ai (LHD) returns to where he set out from; the colonist city (PE) has weathered the siege. However, essentially the end of such a Way is radically different from its beginning. The difference can be measured in terms of those changes which have come about in the process of journeying. Neither the hero nor the world has been left unchanged—as they would be in a pure detective or adventure tale. Le Guin's hero and world have by the end of each tale gone a part of the Way toward that Oneness the longing for which is the motivating force of the subject-matter. The coming about of a changed personality and/or changed world means that the (formally identical) starting and concluding situations of fragmentation and striving toward Oneness are logically or cognitively different: the final situation happens on a "higher" level. As different from the detective tale, it is not only possible but necessary to continue the Way. The continuation will, however, not be a repetition or copy of the just concluded episode, as it would be in an adventure-tale. We might say that we have here to do with a superposition of the closed, circular plot-structure of the detective tale upon an open, linear adventure-tale plot, resulting in the spiral structure of a LeGuinian Journey. Such a journey alters the world and the culture in which it takes place from a spatially sundered and temporally cyclic one into a connected and historic one.

A similarly open-ended meaning distinguishes Le Guin's plots not only from the formally similar "winter journey," but also from the wanderings of fairy-tale heroes, who, like Le Guin's heroes, describe an enormous circle beginning and ending in their "own" world but spent for the most part in alien surroundings. All such plots, involving a formal return to their starting point, may be described as tautological ones. Whereas myth or fairy tale (where the cyclic journey corresponds to the cyclic world and does not change its orientation) are genuinely tautological, Le Guin's tales are not such. Her journeys bring into the world a change, which in turn becomes the source of an endless movement-cum-development, a Way toward the Goal.

The stages of this Way are set out according to Le Guin's persistently recurring scheme, a specific "law of the Universe": fragmentation engendering an urge to union changes into a union engendering new fragmentation. The goal of the individual, the collective, and the rational world as a whole, is to attain a harmonious whole preserving the individuality of its component parts. In this sense, Le Guin's SF can be seen as an artistic quest—estrangement and cognition—for ways out of the contradictions and conflicts of modern fragmented culture, and is deeply committed despite its seeming a-social nature. The initial situations of her tales are therefore permeated with a perfectly legitimate atmosphere of solitude and alienation of each from each: the journey, as a movement toward the identity of each with all (toward the "identity of opposites" as Nicolas of Cusa would have put it), becomes a way to the self and simultaneously to union with others, i.e. from the self. Everything strives to retain its uniqueness, which is a mark of its individual integrity, and at the same time to become part of a higher integrity. This urge towards the union of opposites is most profoundly disclosed in LHD. As Mircea Eliade has observed, men would like to overcome their existential loneliness and be reintegrated in a supraindividual modality; what inhibits them is fear of self-annihilation, of the loss of personal identity.

The hero's quest of himself, i.e. of his separateness, is accomplished in the process of unification with "the other." The Way to "I" lies through "not-I," through the realisation of his own unity with others and of his opposition to everything that is "not-I," in other words through Culture. The plot repeats the establishing of Culture, the formation of a human collective. "I" and "not-I" here are merely forms of the most profound archetypes of human consciousness ("own" vs. "alien"), while the Way is a mythopoetical plot which eliminates this age-old opposition by altering the boundaries of "own" (while retaining a boundary as such, i.e. renewing it over and over again). Culture is understood as a unity which multiplies separateness—it merely shifts the boundaries between "I" and "not-I," and its limit lies in cosmic supra-unity. That is why the theme of a blending of cultures, which permeates all of Le Guin's SF, is always presented by her in the form of an individual human way toward the alien yet intimate other, and why the way toward mutual understanding always leads through a fantastic unification of creatures and principles. The way to mankind's unity can only lead through the involvement of an ever greater number of "others" in man's "I," through an increasing extension of the boundaries of "own."

Basic to Le Guin's SF is the concept that the world is (and must be) in essence One. Things usually separated are in fact united. The Way of the plot leads to an understanding and realisation of this oneness. It is quite deliberate that in her "summarising" tale of LHD a certain stage of unity is embodied in the androgyne—a creature which in terrestrial myths is traditionally linked with the primordial unfragmented condition of the world. The plot in Le Guin is a symbolic sign for such a mythopoetic Way, in LÚvi-Strauss' sense of myth as a search for mediations between opposing orders of being—which is always "androgynous." This is what ancient Chinese philosophy expressed by saying (as Le Guin repeats in LHD): "The Yin (feminine, left), the Yang (the masculine, right, etc.)—this is called Tao (the Way)"; incidentally, the ancient Chinese divinity of light and darkness was also an androgyne.

Le Guin's SF, being mythopoetic, remains nevertheless profoundly contemporary, since she confronts modern culture, with its absolute compartmentalisation and oppositions, and the mythological Origin where lie the sources of the oppressive fragmentation, of all that divides men and cultures. The whole Gethen culture in LHD is based on the abolition of the fundamental dualistic oppositions of terrestrial culture, connected with the division of the sexes; it is based on the inversion of earthly conceptions. Such an inversion or overturning permits the revelation of the invariants of human existence, independent of sexual dimorphism, and becomes an instrument for the cognition of earthly culture (this aspect of LHD has been examined in depth by Lem).7 The mythological state—the Golden Age—appears in this confrontation in the role of not only the initial but simultaneously the final state—the goal or end of the historical Plot. Myth, as a plot, indicates the form and content of History—the abolition of opposites; it becomes the source of historical optimism. The consciousness, however, that the way is endless and the final goal unattainable, supplies Le Guin's books with a constant elegiac undercurrent.


1. Le Guin's "The Word for World Is Forest" and The Dispossessed were not available to me at this writing.

2. In this, Le Guin's SF is, as it were, diametrically opposed to that of Philip K. Dick where the opposite movement predominates—toward the disintegration of all Order and Unity, the destruction of all forms. The idea of having a special issue analysing these two authors seems, therefore, well justified.

3. This type of all-pervading iconicity (the equivalence of the sign to its meaning, the isomorphism of the whole and its parts) is characteristic of medieval culture. There, however, it was looked upon as evidence of the unsovereign nature of the real world, which was regarded as a "sign" of the solely sovereign supernatural reality. In Le Guin's SF the structure of the fictional model serves as the "sign." Reality, therefore, remains wholly sovereign here, while the structure of the fictional model becomes mythopoetic.

4. In this sense, Le Guin's tales differ in principle, from, for example, Stapledon's Last and First Men or Starmaker, where the theme of cosmic amalgamation is taken to an all-embracing conclusion.

5. See, beside the novels analysed, Le Guin's story "Nine Lives."

6. These journeys are, however, to be distinguished in principle from another type of spatio-temporal plot—the "wanderings" into a supernatural world, characteristic of many myths (e.g. Osiris'), medieval Mysteries, Dante, Rabelais or Gogol. The presence of a number of common traditional elements ("alien" world, "false death" and so on) does not mean that Le Guin is dealing in disguised myths. Professor Ketterer's interpretation of LHD (in his New Worlds for Old, Anchor 1974, §4] as a "winter journey" must be considered erroneous, despite his acute particular observations. A "winter journey" is always cyclic, whereas the plot structure of Le Guin's tales is essentially open-ended. In this openness and general inconclusiveness one might see the essential structural difference between myth as such and Le Guin's SF. Its mythopoetic aspect does not exhaust all aspects of its content; a mythological interpretation of its structure can therefore render only a partial account of it.

7. See Stanislaw Lem, "Lost Opportunities," SF Commentary No. 24 (Nov. 1971).



Basic to Le Guin’s SF is the concept that the world is (and must be) in essence One. Things usually separated are united. The Way of the plot leads to an understanding and realization of this oneness. It is quite deliberate that in Left Hand of Darkness a certain stage of unity is embodied in the androgyne—a character linked in terrestrial myths with the primordial, unfragmented condition of the world. The plot in Le Guin is a symbolic sign for such a mythopoetic Way, in Lévi-Strauss’ sense of myth as a search for mediations between opposing orders of being—a search that is always "androgynous." This is what ancient Chinese philosophy expressed by saying (as Le Guin repeats in Left Hand of Darkness): "the Yin (feminine, left), the Yang (the masculine, right, etc.)—this is called Tao, the Way." (The ancient Chinese divinity of light and darkness also was an androgyne.) Le Guin’s SF is mythopoetic yet nonetheless contemporary: she confronts modern culture with its absolute oppositions. The whole Gethenian culture in Left Hand of Darkness negates the fundamental dualism of terrestrial culture, founded in the division of the sexes: Gethen is based on the inversion of Earth and earthly conceptions. Such an inversion or overturning permits the revelation of the invariables in human existence, independent of sexual dimorphism. The mythological state—the Golden Age—is the goal or end of the historical plot and becomes a means of expressing historical optimism. The consciousness, however, that the way is endless and the final goal unattainable supplies Le Guin’s novels with a constant undercurrent of elegy.

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