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.

Octavia E. Butler was just the best

There is a lot of good sci-fi literature out there. Oh man, and feminist sci-fi is some of the absolute best. Actually, feminist genre fiction in general is super good. I know, I know, I’m pretty late to this party. This is hardly news. Lots of people have recognized the brilliance of this genre for decades. To be honest, I’m kind of late to really reading for myself at all.

All throughout school and grad school, I read for my classes, and I read for my research. Didn’t have time for anything else! Then after I finished school… I didn’t have any habits of reading for pleasure or personal interest. (I’m talking books here. I’ve always read a lot of blogs and online news. Too much, actually).

I didn’t seek out feminist works intentionally. As a matter of fact, what got me into reading for pleasure in the first place was the TV show, Game of Thrones. I read through the whole series of novels, and was left looking for more to read. So I turned to some of the unread books taunting me from my bookshelf. I also happened to have a bunch of ebooks downloaded: a list of the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy from an NPR poll.

So I started out with some classics: William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy. Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber series. I liked it all! Lots of dudes though…

What got me into feminist genre fiction was a very unlikely, but happy accident. It goes all the way back to high school. A secret Santa gift exchange between students and teachers. I received Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I think I read the first few pages at the time, but got distracted, and put it down.

But ten years later, on my quest for new sci-fi reading material… I picked it up again.

Of course, I loved it. And I was totally surprised. Not surprised to like it. By this point, I wholeheartedly expected enjoy it. But I was surprised that I had received it from that particular high school teacher in the first place. She was very vocally conservative. Especially when it came to gender issues like abortion. So imagine my surprise when I realize the book she gave me addressed gender politics so brazenly! Did she know the book? Or was it chosen because any sci-fi would do? But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. Though she was vocal and steadfast in her convictions, she was also very tolerant of others’ points of view and encouraged others to explore and express their views even if they were different from her own.

Anyway, ever since then, feminist science fiction has comprised a sizeable portion of my overall reading diet. Of course some books are more overtly engaging with gender politics, while others are just damn good sci-fi written by women.

Let’s see, the books in this category that I’ve read recently are…

The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K. Le Guin
The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood
Hild* Nicola Griffith
The Parable of the Sower Octavia E. Butler
The Parable of the Talents Octavia E. Butler
Saga** Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Dawn Octavia E. Butler
Adulthood Rites Octavia E. Butler
Imago Octavia E. Butler

*Not science fiction. But fantasy-ish. Close enough to genre fiction to be included!
**Comic book series, but still so super good.

I loved all of these books and highly recommend them! In the same way that I’ve posted some notes and reviews about films, I want to post thoughts on these books. I’m not very practiced yet, so we’ll see what happens.

I’ve loved science fiction since I was a kid. And gender politics have been important to me for a long time too. I owe a lot to my parents for raising me to be sensitive and receptive to feminist issues. And I owe a lot to some great university professors for teaching me to notice and articulate those issues.

And, paradoxically, I owe it to a conservative high school teacher for helping me realize that the combination of science fiction and gender politics is overflowing with excellent literature!

Edit: I forgot The Disposessed by Ursula K Le Guin! Another great one that I read after the “Parable” books. Since publishing this, I’ve also read The Birthday of The World and Other Short Stories and Four Ways to Forgiveness. I wish I was more articulate and descriptave when I talk about why I like these authors’ work. But they’re all just so good! I have a lot of catching up to do in this genre, but it is an enjoyable experience!