Rest in Power, Ursula

17th February 2019
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“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”

Laia Odo, The Day Before the Revolution by Ursula Le Guin

In the days following the announcement of Ursula Le Guin’s death, my social media feeds were full of articles, posts and tweets calling her various versions of "the mother of literary Science Fiction", praising her for “transcending genre” and implying that she single-handedly remoulded Sci-Fi from a swamp of Boys’ Own space adventures into the diverse and politically complex exploration of human society and its potential that causes so much anguish to Alt-Right whiners today. It’s a nice sentiment, but I don’t think she would have agreed.

While her anthropological, roots-up world-building certainly helped to broaden the scope of SF (and the demographics of its protagonists), Le Guin would have had no truck with that false dichotomy of the serious, socially conscious New Wave vs. pulpy Space Opera. Her stories have their roots in both. She cut her teeth on the pulp magazines and never dodged the SF label, even when it was a dire insult. While Margaret Atwood, for many years, was cagey about being called either a feminist or a Science Fiction writer, Le Guin always wore both those badges with pride and defended them to all comers (ultimately talking Atwood around to at least one of them). She didn’t turn Science Fiction into serious social commentary; her extraordinarily detailed worlds and breath-taking prose just underlined that it always had been. Which is a much greater and more ambitious achievement – not saying "Look at me, creating a new way of doing things" but "Look at yourself and the familiar things you think you know, and see them in a new way."

That's the message I take away from her work, the fiction and essays and the writing workshops I've used so often - alone or with students - and learned so much from, again and again. That's the anarchism I take away from The Dispossessed and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and Unlocking the Air and Solitude and Four Ways to Forgiveness and Always Coming Home - so many ways to revolution, but it always starts with seeing the world as it is and then imagining it can be different. That's what the best SF always does, and that's what Le Guin did so incredibly well.

It might not be exactly true to say that Ursula Le Guin made me an anarchist, but she certainly made me the anarchist that I am. Sure, I read Bakunin and Kropotkin and Goldman and Parsons. I read about the Haymarket Martyrs and the Kronstadt Rebellion. I read William Morris’ News from Nowhere and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. But The Dispossessed was the first thing that made me really believe in an anarchist society – not just political “I agree with this!” belief, but visceral “If I squint, I can see it, I can see how it would work!” belief, that sense that another world really is possible: not an idealist vision of a perfect world with no failings, but an all-round vision of a robust, human society that can absorb a little failure and survive it and grow and keep on developing. I will always be grateful for that vision.

Rest in Power, Ursula. May you be reborn on Anarres.

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