Ursula Le Guin is one of a few writers whose work is so good that I hesitate to read too much of it out of fear that I will never attempt to write anything again myself. Pigeonholed for decades as a science fiction or fantasy writer, she is a reigning master of the entire arc of the imaginative art of fiction, a member of the first rank of her discipline.
In her acceptance speech in November on receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Awards, Le Guin pointed out that writers such as her -- "my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination" -- have been excluded from the ranks of serious literature for the past 50 years in favor of what she called, with invisible but palpable quotations, "so-called realists."
"I think hard times are coming," she said, "when we will want writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and obsolete society to other ways of being... We will need writers who can remember freedom."
She described "poetic" and "imaginative" writers as "the realists of a larger reality."
In the crises almost certain to come as human society continues to lay waste to the planet's resources and accelerate the pace of rapid climate change already well on the way, it seems to me that human beings may well seek guidance from those pathfinders "of a larger reality." When we are forced to make fundamental changes, find new ways to live, human beings may come to regard visionary artists such as Le Guin among its prophets.
Le Guin's acceptance speech also bemoaned the reduction of the art of literature to a product, a means to make a profit. "Books are not just commodities," she said.
"We live in capitalism," Le Guin told her audience. It's a 'reality' that appears inescapable, she added, "but so did the divine right of kings... Any human power can be changed by human beings."
I suspect that to the folks who chose the National Book Awards, the works of writers of speculative and highly imaginative fiction have been as examples of escapist genres rather than serious literature. Serious literature should address the 'real' conditions of our lives. But just as our machines show us bigger and bigger slices of the universe (or 'verses') we're part of, speculative fiction expands our notion of the real.
When it's written by an artist like Le Guin, scifi and fantasy can show us both what is, and what may be -- or, in the words of Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," offer us a vision of "Of what is past, or passing, or to come."
In books such as "The Dispossessed," "The Left-Hand of Darkness," "The Earth-Sea Trilogy" and "The Lathe of Heaven" that's exactly what she does.
In "The Lathe of Heaven," written way back in 1971, Le Guin offers us a character whose dreams retroactively alter reality. After her protagonist (George) dreams that his aunt, who is very much a part of his reality went to sleep, has died, he wakes to discover that she has died in a car accident six weeks before.
Poor George later asks his shrink to consider whether other people might be able to dream the way he does: "That reality is being changed out from under us, replaced, renewed, all the time - only we don't know it?"
In "The Left-hand of Darkness," the author features a race of people who naturally change gender in the course of a lifetime. Absurd -- a mere chimera? But if you're a man who takes estrogen to treat proste cancer, you may find this "speculative" notion remarkably close to home.
In "Rocannon's World," she invents a world where winter lasts for seven years. Will human beings on Planet Earth ever be asked to adapt to a radically different and more extreme notion of "climate"? Don't look now, folks.
In "The Dispossessed," my favorite of her politically speculative novels, an entire society trains its young to think and behave and live as "anarchists." The interestng hypothesis is that this society, while no utopia of ease, is far better organized -- in addtion to fairer -- than any political structure currently on earth is ever likely to be.
So, yes, we may in fact turn to the fertile imaginations of the most speculative and poetic writers among us to point the way on.
Le Guin's thinking in her talk to the National Book Award people is in fact not far from the oft-quoted and apparently revered notion of the poet Shelley two hundred years ago, who in his essay "In Defense of Poetry" called poets "the the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
This is a rich notion indeed. When we think of the way modern, Western, free-thinking, individualistic, autonomous man and woman has evolved, we may agree with Shelley that, well, yes, the models were found in the arts -- romantic poetry, imaginative fiction, the English novel, essays of Votaire and Rousseau, the opera of Mozarts and the symphonies of Beethoven -- before they were routinely encountered in the flesh of our societies.
The most profound of our arts have always pointed the way on. The greatest artists have always been thinking outside the box. Ursula Le Guin is one of them. We can never have too many.