Ursula K. Le Guin is also just the best

I previously wrote about my love for sci-fi and feminist sci-fi in particular under the title “Octavia E. Butler Was Just the Best.” Still true! I’m sad she died so young. I’m curious to see what the rest of her “Parable” Series would have looked like.

But I’m not here to talk about Butler, but about Le Guin. Another top shelf sci-fi writer. That’s the thing about feminist sci-fi. It doesn’t need it’s own little sub-category. The best feminist sci-fi is the best sci-fi.

Le Guin was a master of the type of science fiction that establishes a world with just a couple of exaggerations or differences from our own world, and then populates that world with humans. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be top-to-bottom aliens and AI and hyperspeed. Just a couple (0r only one) shifts from our own reality, and then she lets everything else play out very naturally. But this is easier said than done! It is no small feat to really make characters and cultures feel naturally human and relatable when inventing them out of whole cloth. Yet Le Guin does this successfully again and again.

Every story is a brilliant thought experiment about human nature. No matter how wacky the premise, her stories feel like documentaries, they play out so naturally.

The Disposessed, for example. A planet and moon are home to twin societies. One is hyper focused on material property. An exaggeration of all of Earth’s capitalist and autocratic societies. The other is an anarchist society where currency, and even personal property do not exist. Put aside any concerns over how difficult it might be to achieve this situation (that’s the suspension of disbelief), and just see how humans would behave in those situations.

Le Guin’s knack for creating such a variety of believable humans and cultures existing in unbelievable circumstances might stem from the fact that she learned about anthropology from such a young age. Her father was a prominent anthropologist. And I imagine she has a deeper than average grasp of the variety of human cultures and behaviors on our planet.

I must confess, I have not read any of her Earthsea books. Most of what I have read of Le Guin is from the loose association of “Ekumen” stories. Since my last post about sci-fi, I’ve nearly completed another book of Le Guin’s, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of short stories. Most of them are in the Ekumen universe. They are all great. Highly recommended!

There is one that I felt would make an interesting film. It’s a kind of diplomatic thriller. An alien diplomat gets caught in the middle of a civil war on a planet with a painful legacy (and present reality) of slavery. The embassy is officially politically neutral but stuck on one side of the divide. While trying to contact the other side, he gets captured and then, well, I don’t want to spoil it. Not that there’s a big twist. It’s just quite well done. It’s not even the best short story in the book, but something about it felt very cinematic.