I just finished watching the PBS American Masters episode on Ursula K. Le Guin (the full video is available here), and it brought up so much for me, as a fan, as a writer, and as an editor as well, immersed as I have been this summer in editing Dispatches from Anarres, a collection of short fiction in tribute to Le Guin.
One of the authors in this collection, the renowned SF and Western writer Molly Gloss, spoke in a panel at AWP this year, noting that when she first met Le Guin, who was teaching a class at Portland State University in the 70s, she was overawed: she’d recently read The Left Hand of Darkness, and Le Guin’s work seemed superhuman, untouchable by mere mortals. But then she read Le Guin’s first book, Rocannon’s World, and thought, “Okay, maybe this is something I could do.”
Seeing this documentary gave me a similar sense–not necessarily in being able to approach Le Guin’s work with my own, but in terms of there being an evolution to her genius, a human story behind it. Le Guin’s work, to my mind, is so uniformly good that it’s easy to imagine she emerged fully formed from Radcliffe (the women’s college attached to Harvard) in the 40s, a West Coast wunderkind ready to set the world on fire.
But there is an evolution here, and the documentary shares that story–the story of a brilliant young woman whose earliest impulses were shaped by her anthropologist father, her writer mother, her Indian “uncles,” and the land in Northern California her family returned to each summer, a “heaven for introverts,” as well as the classics she studied in college.
It’s the story of a woman who was deep in the business of childrearing during the second-wave feminist movement, and who worked to find her place within that movement. A woman who admits that she was slow to realize the extent of the injustices that surrounded her–the truth of the genocide of the Native Americans, the truth of slavery and its legacy, and the truth of how patriarchy shapes the minds of women, herself included.
But when she realized those injustices? They lit her world on fire. And writing fiction was what she did with that heat, that light, that consuming, transformative energy of anger in the face of injustice.
Even so, the documentary points out that the most salient theme in her work is not that of pushing back against injustice, but in exploring alternatives to it–a theme perhaps most fully realized in her novel The Dispossessed, which one of the experts quoted in the movie noted as essential reading for activists of any type.
The moon, Anarres, where the anarchists at the center of the novel have set up a society that’s an alternative to their hyper capitalist home planet of Urras, is an “ambiguous utopia”–a society that has its flaws, and Le Guin notes that she knew, from the beginning, that it contained the seeds of its own demise.
But I was struck by the way the activist interviewed for the documentary pointed out that everything–absolutely everything–we strive for progressive community organizing today is embodied in that book: gender and racial equity, nonheirarchical systems, consensus decision making, you name it.
At protests, we often say, “Another world is possible.” Le Guin actually showed us what that world might look like.
In some small way, I hope that Dispatches from Anarres carries on that tradition, giving voice to the anarchic, progressive, revolutionary spirit of Portland, Le Guin’s city–a city, even now, on the front lines of the culture war in “Trump’s America.”
The line edits on the anthology should be done by the end of September, at which point it will head off to Ooligan, where the press will make the final decision on whether to accept it. But given the star power involved at this point–and the stunning array of stories assembled in its pages–I’m confident at this point it will find an good home, either with this press or elsewhere.