Science Fiction Studies

#7 = Volume 2, Part 3 = November 1975

Darko Suvin

Parables of De-Alienation: Le Guin's Widdershins Dance

1. The Dispossessing. My thesis is that the main thrust and strength of Ursula K. Le Guin's writing lies in the quest for and sketching of a new, collectivist system of no longer alienated human relationships, which arise out of the absolute necessity for overcoming an intolerable ethical, cosmic, political and physical alienation.1 That this is the root experience present in the whole of Le Guin's opus could best be proved by an analysis of that whole. Here I shall have to content myself with a few—hopefully fundamental—indications, referring for the rest to such essays in this issue as Nudelman's, Porter's, and Jameson's.2 However, it seems clear that such an analysis would, already in the sundered and dispersed races and communities of what could be called her "apprentice trilogy" (RW, PE and CI) no less than in its metaphorical system of coldness and depopulated landscapes, find an "objective correlative" of the alienation. Each of her novels is centered on a redeeming hero whose fierce loyalty to his companions and his task is an attempt to counteract the Fall of the symbolic territory—as is the development of mind-speech. In the apprentice trilogy, the hero is a stranger superior to the primitive territory. In LHD, the point of view of the stranger is for the first time shown as fallible, and the territory—though still cold and only artificially implanted with a human-yet- physiologically-inhuman population—has produced its own hero, the territorial traitor with a higher loyalty to humanity. This is exacerbated in WWF, where the well-meaning but sterile outsider can survive—both as character and narrative focus—only as part of the fertile indigenous liberation; and it is completely overcome in Le Guin's undoubted masterpiece TD where the hero and the territory are for the first time adequate to each other, since each (creative scientist-philosopher and classless society) is a dynamically evolving vanguard of humanity so that higher loyalty to humanity does not have to be treason to its exemplary territorial manifestation in this novel. Parallel to the evolution of the hero from outsider to characterological embodiment of the territory is the evolution of the social habitat. Except for LoH, which for reasons explained in my Introductory Note I shall here slight, it is a strictly non-capitalist habitat. It is first presented as a barbaric simplification within which direct human relations can still be shown as meaningful, using but already largely refunctioning SF and heroic fantasy clichés (in RW a mixture of Tolkien or even Dunsany with SF feudalism of the Poul Anderson type, in PE the abandoned colony and the savage onslaught, in CI the post-Catastrophe social reversion, the Vanvogtian two-minded hero unconscious of his superpower, the Tolkienian bad guys, and a decadently refined enemy city strongly reminiscent of Buck Rogers' place of captivity under the Han Air Lords). In LHD—the hinge and divide of Le Guin's opus, the novel within which she broke through the apprenticeship to mastery and which because of that groans under the richness of dazzling and not fully integrated or clarified concepts—the social habitat is not so much a regression to uncluttered earlier social formation, but rather a simplified alternative to the capitalist or commodity-economics model (see Jameson's article). All of Le Guin's opposed discords—foreignness and identity, loneliness and togetherness, fragmentation and connection, and a number of others all rooted in the split between I and Thou, Self and the Other—emerge in LHD in a thus far most concentrated and freeing form, materialized in the huge ice plateau of the novel's culmination. But at the same time, that culmination becomes a "place inside the blizzard" engendering its own values; the habitat has thrown up its own weavers of unification, personal and political—Estraven the Traitor and his appropriate successor, Faxe the Weaver.

Nonetheless, the fact that the ethical and the politico-religious strands of LHD still demand two (or three) bearers; or, that the Foretellers' religion and the other Gethenian myths with their metaphors of creation and still centre emerge as the main support unifying the novel's disparate thematic strands of geography, anthropology and political intrigue; or, in still other words, the richness yet fragmentation of the points of view, sundering narrator and hero—all these loose ends, though here turned to excellent formal account, admit of further conceptual and therefore also narrative stringency. In WWF a hero was found who could—at a price—unite action and reflection, world-time and dream-time, and show forth both vertical (relation of conscious-unconscious) and horizontal (relation of self and society) de-alienation. Very significantly, de-alienation is brought about by a liberating struggle against imperialist colonialism. Yet, though imperialist oppression is in our age the saber's edge of the crassest, crudest, and physically most murderous alienation (so that the characters of Ho Chi Minh or of doctors Ernesto Guevara and Frantz Fanon are quite relevant to that of Selver), unfortunately alienation within the all-pervading psychical eco-system of modern capitalism is not always so conveniently embodied in a malevolent Other. In everyday life within the imperial powers, the malignance of alienation lies largely in its insidious power to be internalized into the Self—and the defence of a balanced Self against death-bringing alienation of its own powers is the subject of Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy. Seen from a purely formal viewpoint of internal consistency and stylistic clarity, that trilogy is her best work up to TD. But there is a price to pay for the pitiless simplification inherent in even the best heroic fantasy, and in particular when it is the parable of the Proper Namer, the artist-creator, whose lonley sin can only be irresponsible playing with a world whose sole arbiter he is. Beautiful, polished, and self-enclosed like a diamond necklace, The Earthsea Trilogy thus in the end deals with what a creator (say a writer) must do in order to live and create, and Ged's Dunsanian Taoism seems to me at a second—propaedeutic or therapeutic—remove from what Le Guin is trying to write about in her SF of collective practice. Therefore, the malevolent alienation, which comes from the outside but is mirrored inside the territory and the hero, was not disposed of in Earthsea. Even WWF only showed the emergence of the "translating" or mediating hero; the territory of WWF, the forest which is the word for the world in the language of Selver's people, is in a static balance, a closed circle of unhistorical time. Selver's horizontal, collective de-alienation is achieved at the price of a partial vertical, personal alienation into what Le Guin here still calls "the dead land of action" (§2).

Only Urras and Anarres in TD are a twin system, able to account for the threats and forms of both external and internal alienation; only TD reconciles linear and circular time—or cosmic, historical and personal sense—in Shevek's simulsequentialist physics, politics and ethics. And this is, if not caused by (one hesitates to say, just as in Shevek's physics, which is cause and which effect), certainly correlative to the ideologico-political breakthrough of Le Guin's identifying the privileged forms of alienation as propertarian possession. "The Dispossessed" is already in its title so much richer than the territorial titles of the "apprentice trilogy" or the Taoist mythopoetics (somewhat hollow in "The Lathe of Heaven," and beautifully pivoted in "The Left Hand of Darkness") of her middle-period book titles. The dispossessed are those who have no more possessions, the non-propertarians, but also those who are no more possessed (in the Dostoevskian sense of demon-ridden) or obsessed by the principle of Having instead of Being, no more ridden by profiteering possessiveness whether applied to things, other people, nature, knowledge (Sabul's and Urrasian physics) or to oneself (Urrasian—e.g. Veia's— sexuality). From a propertarian point of view, the Anarresians have voluntarily dispossessed themselves of life-sustaining property, of their very planet; from an anarchist or socialist/communist/utopian point of view, they have rid themselves of the demon possession. The Dispossessed means thus literally—in more beautiful, semantically richer, and thus more forceful English—The De-Alienated, those rid of alienation both as physical reification (by things and impersonal apparatuses) and as psychical obsession (by demons and what Marx calls fetishes). The things that are in saddle and ride the reified Possessed recur in the imagery of barriers between individuals as well as between people and things on Urras—its walls and wrappings. The fetishes or idols of the obsessed Possessed are ideological pseudo-categories such as freedom from rather than freedom for (§5) and linguistic idols such as the hierarchical "higher" or "superior" standing for excellent (§1). Of course, obsession and reification are only two faces of the same pale rider, in the sense suggested by the fundamental Marxist category of "commodity fetishism" which uses the most modern philosophical vocabulary to properly name the most ancient enslavement or alienation of humanity. Thus, the ideological pseudo-categories and idols in TD are themselves also walls and wrappings, and vice-versa. Therefore Anarres is at least ideally committed to being the place of naked, open, not compartmentalized (e.g. professionally or sexually) and almost thingless human relationships. Its name testifies to its being not only the country of An-Archy (non-domination) and the negated (an) or reinvented (ana) Urras, but also (see Bierman) the Country Without Things (res); and Urras is not only a phonetically heightened shadow of Earth, but the primitive (Ur) and stunted (only disyllabic) opposite of Anarres; it is the place which has not yet got rid of res. The very real shortcomings and backslidings of Anarres do not ultimately detract from but instead reaffirm the exemplarity of its original, Odonian impulse.

2. The New Atlantis. To pursue and perhaps clinch this argument, let me analyze Le Guin's latest story, "The New Atlantis" (NA). In all evolutionary processes, in the Darwinian phylogenetic tree, in the spiral of social history, or in a writer's opus, the future—the latest point to which evolution has arrived, and the use of that point for a retrospective—is the justification and explanation of the past, and thus in a sense its cause. If this at first sight fairly abstruse story can be deciphered by using the theory that the centre of Le Guin's creation is the double star of identifying the neo-capitalist, individualist alienation and juxtaposing to it a sketch of a new, collectivist and harmonious, creation, then the theory will be shown to work.

NA is divided into two interlocking narrations, which gradually and parallel to each other define themselves and their mutual correspondences. As in TD, this is correlative to their presenting an old and a new world—here a declining or subsiding and an ascending or emerging one. Analogous to the parallelism of physics to ethics and politics in TD, the informing metaphor of NA is the substitution of geology for history. The old world, the old Atlantis of NA rushing headlong toward the chasm which engulfed the legendary Atlantis, is a somewhat extrapolated USA of advanced political and ecological breakdown, rather similar to one of Orr's alternative futures in the 2002 of LoH, and equally laid in Portland, Oregon, LoH's—and Le Guin's, who lives there—"centre of the world"). A "corporative State," a well-identified American variant of admass fascism, is conjured up simply by integrating into a seamless governmental totality all the already existing bureaucracies: stock-market and unions, health, education and welfare, credit-cards and mass-media, with interstices for regulated and parasitic "private enterprise." The system makes lavish use of the 20th-Century habits of false naming: the "Supersonic Superscenic Deluxe Longdistance bus" is a dilapidated coal-burner which breaks down when it tries to go over 30 mph; the "Longhorn Inch-Thick Steak House Dinerette" serves meatless hamburgers; the All-American Broadcasting Company confidently announces that the war in Liberia is going well for "the forces of freedom" and peace is at hand in Uruguay, interspersing this with weekly "all-American Olympic Games" and catchy commercials for "coo-ol, puu-uure U.S.G. [i.e. canned] water"; and so on. Also, a repressive bourgeois legality is only somewhat extended to cover Solzhenitsyn-like Rehabilitation Camps and Federal Hospitals for dissidents, compulsory full employment, reduction of universities to trade schools, etc. But within this fairly standard American radical nightmare, whose aspects can be found in a number of SF works from Orwell and Pohl to Spinrad, there are two new elements. First, in the sinking world there is a story of the narrator's scientist-husband Simon and a group of friends, not too dissimilar from Shevek's group (Simon publishes in Peking!) but in USA rather than Anarres and, correspondingly, incomparably more repressed. Working illegally, they invent direct energy conversion, which would in sane circumstances stop the ecological breakdown and thus obviate the economic necessity for the corporative—or any centralized—State and its way of life. But the circumstances are the opposite of sane, and, though the scientist-creators have found how to use physical power, they have no clue to how to find and use political power. This typical LeGuinian ambiguity already makes the story superior to either the unfounded optimism by which technological inventions automatically save the world bringing about decentralization and similar (e.g. the same device in early Simak), or the gloom and doom arising from exclusive concentration—sometimes with an almost morbid satisfaction—on an ecologico-political breakdown (e.g. in Brunner's very similar environment of The Sheep Look Up).

However, the second specifically LeGuinian element is embodied in the very composition and style of the story, and therefore much more important. It is the parallel picture of a new creation—alternating with the old as the Anarres chapters do with the Urras ones in TD—arriving at self-consciousness and self-definition, a bit as if Plato's or Butler's souls of the not-yet-born were being incarnated and were gradually defining their senses by defining their environment: an extraordinarily beautiful new Genesis of perception and cognition—of time, space, number and universe—by means of fitful lights. It is an (extremely un-Baconian) New Atlantis, an undersea creation which rises from a dark and cold pressure through mysterious tides to a final breakthrough into life. But the Genesis is, as always in Le Guin, an impure and ambiguous one. The light-bearing, Luciferic creatures announcing and inducing it are dwarfish and misshapen: "...all mouth. They ate one another whole. Light swallowed light all swallowed together in the vaster mouth of the darkness." Yet these cruel and poor "tiny monsters burning with bright hunger, who brought us back to life" define by their hungry lights the coordinates of collective space, the planes and towers of a city which had existed earlier but had fallen. The city is now being recreated through the act of beholding and remembering it, and raised by irresistible geological pressures. At the end, the dawn still arrives as a dark blue and cold, a submarine one—the awareness of light itself rather than of the objects lit—but the metamorphosis of light above the tops of the towers indicates that the city's emergence is at hand.

I have paraphrased the much more puzzling "submarine" strand of the narration as closely as I could in order to argue about its meaning in itself and within the whole story. Now, only second-rate writings in SF are rigid allegories with a one-to-one relationship of each item described to some dogmatic scheme. However, I would maintain that any significant writing in SF is necessarily analogical or parabolical—a parable being a verisimilar narration which has a determinable meaning or tenour outside of narration, but whose plausibility is not based upon such a transferred meaning but upon internal narrative consistency. Thus the classical (say New Testament) parable is ideologically closed or univocal, but stylistically always open-ended, waiting for the reader's application; its ultimate aim is the shock of estrangement reorienting the reader's perception—in modern times, making him recognize the alienated world he lives in. It is not an allegory in that it does not substitute one thing for another (in the case of NA, alienation for the dark pressure which had so long prevented fallen Atlantis from rising again) but sets one thing by the side of another, the explicit by the side of the implicit. Therefore, in a parable the literal narrative and the meaning "do not coincide, as in an allegory; it is only parallels that exist between the two."3 And though the direction of the meaning is clear and univocal, there may be several levels of meaning; a parable is usually polysemous. All this seems particularly applicable to Le Guin, whose Anti-Queen Utopa—Odo (in TD)—wrote two books, Community and Analogy (her analogies, if I understand the Anarresians well, have four "modes"—ethical, physico-technological, religious and philosophical—not unlike Dante's four modes of allegory), and who is one of the most consciously analogical or parabolic writers around. What, then, does the analogy of the New Atlantis stand for?

If the story NA is to have any unity, the emerging new City must be an analogy—here by contraries—to the dying American society, a new republic, community or life-form germinating up from the depths, symmetrically opposed, as it were, to the perishing republic of the first strand. One key is supplied by the personal pronoun: the declining narration is in first person singular, the "I" being that of Belle, the disloyal but suppressed citizen of the corporate State and wife of the only momentarily freed concentration-camp prisoner Simon. The ascending narration is in first person plural, the "we" being a new community (shades of Odo!) which relates to that of the U.S.A. as collectivism does to individualism and also—in view of the cognition and color imagery—as beauty and knowledge to pollution and ignorance of both self and universe. The Atlantis collective has been submerged and unconscious for ages, just as has the idea of a true and beautiful collective or classless society; the Fall of Atlantis, then, is here something like the fall from tribal into class society and the concomitant alienation of man into social institutions. A condition of pristine unity is presupposed in the whole of Le Guin's opus as a past Golden Age; it echoes through the present alienation from the unsplit Ancient One in RW, through the direct, unalienated communication he gives to Rocannon—mind-speech (whose development is the primary red thread of her writing up to LHD, rather than the Hainish chronology so ingeniously worked out by Watson in SFS #5), to Selver's integral forest in WWF and the other forest-minds and tree images in her opus. But by 1975, in NA, there is a New Atlantis rising: the forces of de-alienation are on the rise in Le Guin's writing, parallel to what she (one hopes rightly) senses as the deep historical currents in the world. Having achieved a balance with darkness in LHD, a partial victory in WWF and the first large-scale victory in TD, these forces of a new and better creation are now ready to rise in full stature to the surface of our Earth. We cannot tell exactly who they are and what they will be like: we can only tell that they are being raised up by tides stronger than even the ultimate class society of the corporate State, by the slow and inexorable geological tides of history so to speak; that they have just begun to remember the past glories of their City; and that the Luciferic goads and precursors (the lantern-creatures, whom I would interpret as the revolutionary political and ideological movements of the last century or two, say since 1789 and 1917, swallowing each other up in fierce infighting and "all swallowed together" by the still stronger alienation), although themselves twisted and stunted, have awakened the new creation to self-awareness.

All this can be confirmed by the correspondences existing between adjoining sections of the two narrative strands. The American strand is divided into six segments, each of which precedes the corresponding segment of the New Atlantis strand; and each group of two segments from the juxtaposed strands has a correspondingly parallel or inverse motif. For example, the two No. 1 segments (pp. 61-64 and 64-66) are introductions to the world and theme of the segment—to American degradation vs. Atlantean creation; the two No. 4 segments (pp. 76-79 and 79-80) present the "cold sunrise"—the invention of direct conversion of solar power frustrated by the lack of political power vs. the deindividualized blue sunrise "the color of the cold, the color farthest from the sun"; the two No. 5 segments (pp. 80-83 and 83-85) balance the American dissidents' frustrated vision of a possible New (the solar cell and its implications) with the Atlantean collective's wondering memory of the wonderful Old (the jewel-like gracious city and its implications); and finally, the last two segments (pp. 85-86 and p. 86) present the end of the American narrator's private world-cell (the re-arrest of her husband) and the nearing end of the U.S.A. in earthquakes combated by atomic bombs, opposed to the breakthrough of the new Atlantis.

However, one final element reintroduces the realistic, bitter-sweet LeGuinian ambiguity. For after all, it may be very well to know that the end of our creation means, at the same time, the beginning of a new and more colorful one; yet this is not a full consolation for our passing—for the passing of the courageous and well-meaning group of Simon's, and of the whole old continent with its future Schuberts (such as the Forrest whose compositions are also surreptitiously played by Simon's wife). And indeed it is the "yearning music from far away in the darkness, calling not to us [i.e. not to the Atlanteans but to the Americans—and to the reader] 'Where are you? I am here,'" which is echoed in the final segment spoken by the Atlanteans:

Where are You?

We are here. Where have you gone?

For the music of the "lonely ones, the voyagers" (like Schubert) called out for non-alienated man all along, through our whole history of fallen Atlantis. This music is not only the harmony of sounds—I would further interpret—but all harmony of art, science and philosophy, always harking back or looking forward to human unity: unity of man within himself, of men in society, of humanity in Earth, and of men with nature. By that same token, such music of sounds, concepts, shapes or formulas is a witness to the unborn potentialities and unfulfilled promises of the race that produced this music. That is why it calls to it, and not to the Atlanteans. But that is also why the Atlanteans' last question-segment—the end of their strand and of the whole NA, which is rendered all the weightier for consisting of only three sentences—must, subsuming as it does the voices of the old creation's music, be taken as a lament for lost potentialities, as an acknowledgment that the New will, paradoxically, be lonely without (and because of the failure of) the Old. In my interpretation, even the classless society, the more beautiful humanity, will always miss the lost potentialities of ours, all our mute, inglorious Miltons or unburned Brunos or 40-year-old Mozarts. In simpler and less elitist terms, it will always yearn for all the life-patterns lost in our unnecessary hungers, diseases and wars. Le Guin's future is lonely for the past, as ascetic Anarres is for the promises (the plant and animal creation as well as the people) of Urras.

I fail to see how else one can make full sense of NA.

3. The Price and the Hope. As the above analysis of NA and the elegiac tone (Nudelman) of Le Guin's whole opus indicate, the ambiguities never absent from it do not primarily flow from a static balancing of two yin-and-yang-type alternatives, two principles or opposites (light-darkness, male-female, etc.) between which a middle Way of wisdom leads. This may be an aspect or a "middle phase" (Porter) of Le Guin's, but I would think the attempts to subsume her under Taoism (which has undoubtedly had an influence) are in view of her development after LoH not only doomed to failure but also retrospectively revealed as inadequate even for her earlier works (LoH being, here again, an exception, but as Watson argued a purgative one). Rather, the LeGuinian ambiguities are in principle dynamic, and have through her evolution become more clearly and indubitably such. That means that to every opposition or contradiction there is, as Mao Tse-tung4 would say, a principal aspect which is dominant or ascendant and by means of which that contradiction renders asunder the old, transforming it into the new. That principal or dominant aspect is Selver's "godhood" translating new and terrible dreams into a new world-time, or Odonianism, the principle of classless and non-antagonistic community, analogically applied to man and the universe, transforming the old politics, ethics and physics. The synthesis of linear, sequential progress and cyclical, simultaneous fullness of being into spiral simulsequentialist dialectics is balanced only in the way a master skater or a hovering falcon is—in permanent revolution and evolution, which fails as soon as it is arrested. And it is always a left-hand skate or swoop, a counter-clock helix, a widdershins dance that goes against the dominant and alienated received ideas of our civilization.

Le Guin's heretic protagonists are culture heroes, in that each founds a major cultural concept, translating it from unnamed to named existence. The ingathering of races and recuperation of mind-speech which permits the naming of Rocannon's World, Estraven's "treason," Selver's liberation warfare, Shevek's unifying ansible, Simon's direct power conversion, are such concepts. In the long run, they assert themselves in the Hainish universe; but not necessarily in the short run. Realistically, the heroes pay a stiff price for their victories, though the price decreases through Le Guin's opus down to Shevek, the first Founding Father who is also a biological father and whose collective or comitatus is not destroyed at the end of the story—another way of saying he can live on to enjoy his victory. Almost everybody else, from Rocannon and Falk to Selver and Simon, is an ambiguous questing figure "lonely, isolated...out on the edge of things."5

Sometimes, especially in early Le Guin, this is almost an existentialist stance of envisaging the creator as necessarily lonely in the a priori alien world of practice, a stance which sociologically corresponds to a petty-bourgeois intellectualism. Thus, an elementary text of capitalist economics bores Shevek, and no doubt Le Guin, "past endurance" (§5), as can be gathered from the political economics—what and how people work, cook, buy or distribute, what share of social product they create and control—absent from LHD and LoH, even from TD and NA, and replaced at their centre by shifting counterpoints of ethics, politics, and "direct contact" with nature. Mythology and some forms of quasi-religious (though atheist) mysticism are a logical ground bass to these counterpoints. This is accompanied by a deep distrust of organized mass politics which (though historically understandable) even in TD leads to such half-truths as the "You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere" (§9), explaining why the Urras revolt is the weakest link in that novel. Obversely, it also means a certain naive dissolution of politics into ethics, as in CI which is ideologically based on the conflict of the Shings' lie with Falk's truth. Indeed, mind-speech itself is (as in all SF) a kind of individualistic substitute for de-alienation or metaphor for a unifying collectivism, so that the Shings' possibility of mind-lying corresponds to a false collectivism (politically something like fascism, Stalinism or—in its insistence on not taking life—Christianity)—which is why it is so horrifying. But this is a mystifying metaphor which translates the de-alienation into terms of the self rather than of the society. When the self is projected onto rather than taken as an analogy of the society or indeed the universe, narrative and ideological difficulties arise. A good example for projection vs. analogy are the two Portland tales, LoH and NA, the second of which seems to me to achieve what the first did not.

On the other hand, however, the insistence on personally meaningful ethics, on means commensurate to ends, is much more than petty-bourgeois sentimentality or liberalism. Though in actual practice things can never be as neat as in abstract planning, this is to my mind that demand of the old society, of radical and revolutionary middle-class (bourgeois and petty-bourgeois) traditions, for which the new society—or at least the movements toward socialism in the last 100 years—has to yearn as much as the New Atlanteans do for the old creation's Schubert-like music. In insisting upon it, Le Guin is taking up her characteristic dialectical position of being the devil's advocate not so much against the alienated old as against the insufficiently or ambiguously de-alienated new. Her political position can be thought of as a radical critic and ally of socialism defending its duty to inherit the heretic democratic, civic traditions, e.g. Jefferson's or indeed Tom Paine's. This would explain her great ideological affinity for the Romantics and the post-Romantic 19th Century democrats, especially for the left-wing "populists" culminating in Tolstoi, Hugo, and Thoreau (whose Walden is the "New Canon" of CI). That stance has some contradictions of its own (see Jameson's essay), but when taken as being itself an Old Canon flowing into the New Canon of libertarian socialism, it represents a precious antidote to socialism's contamination by the same alienating forces it has been fighting so bitterly in the last century—by power apparatuses and a pragmatic rationality that become ends instead of means. Le Guin's anarchism, then, can be malevolently thought of as the furthest radical limit at which a disaffected petty-bourgeois intellectual may arrive, a leftist Transcendentalism, or benevolently as a personal, variant name for and way to a truly new libertarian socialism. A choice between these two interpretations will be possible only in retrospect, a few years hence; and no doubt, judging from her own spiral development in the last six or seven years, both interpretations of such an anarchism are partly right. But to my mind, in spite of elements discussed in the preceding paragraph, the dominant or ascendant aspect of Le Guin's contradictory ideology is a useful one. It not only claims for socialism the self-governing tradition of the citizen (as opposed to that of the bourgeois),6 e.g. the New England town-meeting tradition; it is not only a politically realistic warning; it also shapes accurate and therefore pleasurable artistic analogies to the contemporary situation of the liberating New. Just as her lonely heretics, the forces of the New are in truth—under the terrible pressures of the totalizing neo-capitalist commodity-economy (see Jameson) and of their own mistakes and dead ends (primarily the Russian example)—in an isolated minority within the North Atlantic if not the New Atlantean world. Their position and vicissitudes seem to me to explain not only the clear-eyed elegiac atmosphere of Le Guin's, but also the retrenchment she austerely—almost puritanically—operates in all of her work, culminating in TD. This "world-reduction" (Jameson) is not only a reaction to the polluted American abundance and a realistic diagnosis of a better model of life but also the sign of a situation where the bearers of the New, the Lucifers, are separated from the large majority of those for whom this New is intended. In this situation, the aridity—like that of Anarres—is a retrenchment from the "living flesh" (§4) of a natural community, a harsh but clean acceptance of asceticism. The beautiful passages of Shevek's recognition of animals (§5) no less than the end of NA seem to me to signify that gulf of unrequited brotherhood. (In a somewhat more melodramatic form, the power of the clone break-up in "Nine Lives," whose survivor, metamorphosed from being part to being alone, has to learn the lesson of alienation, surely also comes from this cluster of concepts.)

In an earlier article,7 when faced with a group of 1969 novels including LHD, I noted that a clear group of "New Left" SF writers (a term that, as used here, has to do more with sensibility and world view than political affiliation) had emerged. If I may be allowed to repeat myself, their common denominator is a radical disbelief in the individualist ideology—i.e., that a stable and humane system can be built upon a sum of individual, Robinson-Crusoe greeds as the measure of all values. They deal with a changed neo-capitalist society of mass disaffection, mass media and mass breakdowns in a perceptive form for which—as different from earlier SF—Joyce, Dos Passos, Malraux, Faulkner, Brecht and intermedia in art, or Marcuse and Mao in philosophy of history, are living presences though not sacred texts. Ursula Le Guin, with her unsentimental warm concern with collective humanism, is the clearest and most significant writer of this group, allowing us to recognize our central concerns through a detour of estrangement. Already, LHD spoke—to use the words of that novel—to our "strong though undeveloped sense of humanity, of human unity. I got quite excited thinking about this" (§8). Since then she has evolved through Lao Tzu to Kropotkin and Goodman. Le Guin is less flashy and abrasive than most other "New Left" writers—such as Brunner, Delany, Russ or Spinrad—and the major presences in her writing are rather poets from Marvell and Coleridge on, and social novelists from Dickens, Stendhal and Dostoevsky to Solzhenitsyn and Virginia Woolf. In a way, she is the most European and—in her sense of human relationships being determined by human institutions—most novelistic writer in present-day American SF, and the blend of 19th-Century Realism and a discreet Virginia-Woolf-type adoption of some techniques of lyric poetry with the ethical abstraction of American romances may account for much of her stylistic power and accessibility. Her clear and firm but richly and truthfully ambiguous Leftism situates her at the node of possibly the central contemporary contradiction, that between capitalist alienation and the emerging classless de-alienation. Because of that, Le Guin is today not only one of scarcely half a dozen most important SF writers in the world, but her SF parables from LHD on are to my mind among the most penetrating and entertaining explorations of the deep value shifts of our age. Like the basic image in her work, that of two different hands meeting the dark, her writings touch us gently and firmly, reminding us that across gulfs of otherness our brothers not only can but must be met. Her widdershins dance, denying alienation, figures forth a de-alienated humanity. That, I believe, is the basis for her wide popularity. Saying "no" to the old, she also says "yes" to the new—witness TD and NA. And if these tales were written less than a dozen years after she began publishing, what cannot we hope for, from her, in the future arising out of such a past?


1. On alienation, see the two introductory anthologies, Eric Fromm, ed., Socialist Humanism (Doubleday Anchor, 1966), and Eric and Mary Josephson, eds., Man Alone (Dell, 1964); Istvan Meszaros, Marx's Theory of Alienation (London: Merlin, 1917); and a long further bibliography in Herbert Aptheker, ed., Marxism and Alienation (Humanities Press, 1965), especially the works listed by Fromm, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Marx, and C. Wright Mills.

2. For secondary literature on Le Guin's SF see Douglas Barbour, "The Lathe of Heaven —Taoist Dream," Algol #21(Nov 1973):22-24, and "Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin," SFS 1(1974):164-73; David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old (Doubleday Anchor pb and Indiana Univ Press hb, 1974), §4 with Le Guin's rejoinder and Ketterer's reply in SFS 2(1975)137-45; Stanislaw Lem, "Lost Opportunities," SF Commentary #24(Nov 1971):22-24, with Le Guin's reply in #26(April 1972):90-92; Ian Watson, "Le Guin's Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick," SFS 2 (1975):67-75; Robert Scholes, Structural Fabulation (Notre Dame Univ Press, 1975), §4. My thanks are due to Ursula K. Le Guin and to Susan J. Anderson for supplying me with some of Le Guin's own essays, which are as relevant as any of the above for understanding her work.

3. Eta Linnemann, Parables of Jesus (London: SPCK, 1966), p 26; see also Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre, ed. John Willett (Hill and Wang, 1966); Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Harper & Row, 1968); C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (Fontana, 1971); Geraint Jones, The Art and Truth of the Parables (London: SPCK, 1964); Abraham Kaplan, "Referential Meaning in the Arts," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 12(1964):457-74; Louis MacNeice, Varieties of Parable (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 1965); and Dan Via, The Parables (Fortress, 1967). On estrangement besides Brecht see Ernst Bloch's fundamental "Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement," in Erika Munk, ed., Brecht (Bantam 1972). I have tried to apply their insights to SF in my theoretical essays in College English 34(1972):372-82, and Genre 6(1973):251-73. I cannot enter here into the ideologically very significant differences between various historical modes of parable, from the Greeks and Hebrews to our age, but I discuss a modern parable in my Afterward to the English-language editions of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris.

4. Mao Tse-tung, "On Contradiction," Four Essays in Philosophy (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1968), especially §4.

5. Le Guin's prefatory note to her story "The Masters," where such a figure first appears; see item C3 in Levin's bibliography in this issue of SFS.

6. See on this basic historical dualism Karl Marx, "On the Jewish Question," Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, eds. (Doubleday Anchor, 1967).

7. D. Suvin, "The SF Novel in 1969," in James Blish, ed., Nebula Award Stories Five (1970)



While Dick is a "romantic" writer whose energy lashes out in a profusion of incandescent and interfused narrative protuberances, Le Guin is a "classical" writer: her energy is as fierce but is strictly controlled within a taut and spare architectural system of narrative cells. Dick writes centrifugally, as it were in revolving sectors (say of a radar sweep). Le Guin writes centripetally, in a narrowing spiral (say of a falcon circling to a swoop); she delineates ever more precisely the same object. Dick sees a world of addition and multiplication, so he reproduces it in his narrative forms. Le Guin sees a world of subtraction and division, and she started by reproducing it. But it seems to me and to many contributors in this issue that with The Left Hand of Darkness she has increasingly expressed the complementary urge toward integration. We need seers of both the Le Guin and the Dick type, for their visions help us to define and thus master our common world. These and many other points are argued abundantly in this special issue. Yet despite the diversity of critical approaches employed here, no contributor attempts to integrate the Earthsea trilogy with Le Guin’s SF. A number of aspects of Le Guin remain to be elucidated.

My thesis is that the main thrust and strength of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing lies in its quest for and sketching of a new, collectivist system of no-longer-alienated human relationships. This system arises out of the absolute necessity for overcoming an intolerable ethical, cosmic, political, and physical alienation. Le Guin’s heretical protagonists are culture heroes: each founds a major cultural concept, translating it from unnamed to named existence. The ingathering of races and recuperation of mind-speech which permits the naming of Rocannon’s World, Estraven’s "treason," Selver’s liberation warfare, Shevek’s unifying ansible, and Simon’s direct power conversion, are all such concepts. In the long run, culture heroes and their discoveries assert themselves in the Hainish universe, but not necessarily in the short run. Realistically, the heroes pay a stiff price for their victories, though the price decreases through Le Guin’s opus down to Shevek, the first Founding Father who is also a biological father and whose collective or comitatus is not destroyed at the end of the story—another way of saying he can live on and enjoy his victory. Almost everybody else, from Roncannon and Falk to Selver and Simon, is an ambiguous questing figure, "lonely, isolated,. . .out on the edge of things" (Le Guin, "The Masters"). Among the texts considered are "The New Atlantis," The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Le Guin’s "apprentice trilogy": Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions.

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