News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
Friday, November 5, 2004
Creating worlds of possibility
LISA KREMER; The News Tribune
Ursula K. Le Guin, the award-winning author of fantasy,
science fiction and poetry, has promised the producers of a
new miniseries based on her works, "Earthsea," that she
won't talk about the project publicly.
But it's possible to guess her opinions on casting -- a
subject that has die-hard fans atwitter.
Ged, the main character, a conflicted but powerful magician,
will be played by Shawn Ashmore -- a fair-skinned man best
known for playing Iceman in "X2." In Le Guin's novels, on
which the miniseries is based, Ged has red-brown skin. In
Earthsea, most white people are villains.
"That was a completely deliberate political act," Le Guin
said recently of her racial choices in "A Wizard of
Earthsea," first published in 1968.
"Fantasy has been pretty much a white game," she said. "I
was sick of that already in 1968. I thought, this is silly,
this is stupid."
So she wrote a three-volume fantasy epic -- which has won
many awards and been compared to "The Lord of the Rings" and
C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" series -- in which the main characters
are red-brown and black.
Most of Le Guin's heroes, in fact, are what people in the
United States today would call minorities. In Le Guin's
science-fiction worlds, delegates from Earth to other
planets often are black or Indian (from India); back on
Earth, white people make a hash of the planet, destroying
natural resources and each other in the name of greed or
Le Guin has steadily published science-fiction and fantasy
novels since 1966. She's experiencing a resurgence of
popularity with the coming airing of "Earthsea" on the Sci
Fi Channel; a new young-adult fantasy, "Gifts"; and the
reissue of one of her most popular young-adult novels, "Very
Far Away from Anywhere Else."
A Portland resident, Le Guin has become one of the most
respected names in science fiction and fantasy. Her
complicated characters and philosophically constructed
universes defy the stereotype for speculative fiction,
usually considered a great landscape for alien monsters,
preposterous wars or endearing talking dragons.
Le Guin uses her fiction to delve not only into racial
issues, but gender stereotypes, sexual-orientation
expectations and governing philosophies.
She's one of science fiction and fantasy's most political
authors, sometimes called an anarchist because of her
detailed description of a successful anarchic society in one
of her earliest books, "The Dispossessed."
But in many of her books, Le Guin's political and
philosophical explorations take second place to her
characters. She's a master at describing complicated
emotions and relationships in clear, direct writing.
"Gifts," for example, is a young-adult novel of a boy
learning to handle his unwanted, terrible magical abilities.
It's a coming-of-age novel, set in a fictitious land where
magic is more of a curse than a blessing.
"Learning how to live in the world is what that's all
about," she said. "This is not an easy world. Somewhere
between 12 and 18 is where you feel that most intensely."
Le Guin is 75, a long way from those painful teen years.
When her agent suggested she write a young-adult novel to
take part in the fantasy craze inspired by Harry Potter, Le
Guin at first was hesitant.
"I said, 'Oh, I'm too old,'" she said. "And she said, 'But
you remember.' And I said, 'Yes, I do.'"
Le Guin often tries to make her messages subtle.
In "A Wizard of Earthsea," readers don't learn Ged is
red-brown until several chapters in, after he's already
vanquished barbarian invaders to his village, studied with a
local magician, and rebelliously decided to leave his home
for greater learning at a magician's college.
"You can flip a kid into somebody else's skin, and then you
tell them what color they are after several chapters," Le
Guin said. "It's a sneaky trick, but it's a fair trick."
Sneaky or not, her nonwhite readers have noticed.
"I've had really, really touching letters, both from England
and from America, who've said, 'Earthsea is the only fantasy
book I can read, because it's the only book I'm in. I don't
see myself in fantasy.'"
Le Guin was born in Berkeley, Calif., the daughter of Alfred
L. Kroeber, considered one of the founders of American
anthropology. Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, was a writer
whose book "Ishi" was a cultural study of an American Indian
the Kroebers worked with in the mid-1910s.
She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, got a master's
degree from Columbia in 1952 and married historian Charles
Le Guin in 1953. They discovered Portland in 1958. The
rebellious city fits her well and is a wonderful place to
raise children, she said. The Le Guins have three children
and three grandchildren.
She has mixed feelings about Harry Potter. Anything that
gets children to read is great, she said. But reviewers have
compared author J.K. Rowling's school for wizards to
Earthsea's wizards' school, and Le Guin thinks that
misrepresents her writing.
"Her wizards . . . use their wizardry just against each
other. It’s a competitive sport," she said, "whereas my
Earthsea books are really kind of a study of power. What's
good about having unlimited power, what's bad about it,
what's the responsibility, what does it do to you as a
person to have power.
"I think in my Earthsea books, the wizards are testing
themselves in a kind of real world, where it's not full of
Muggles, it's full of real people with problems. That's a
big difference. It's partly the difference between a child’s
book and a young adult book."
Le Guin's best-known books are based in Earthsea, a complex
fantasy world, and in an extensive futuristic
science-fiction universe, referred to as the Ekumen. But
she's also written a series of children's books called
"Catwings," essays on writing, several books of poetry and a
translation of Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching."
"She knows that the world can be funny as well as sad,
pedestrian as well as magical, and that we're connected to
the humor and the magic as well as to the sadness and the
pain," author Vonda McIntyre said when Le Guin was named a
"Grand Master" in 2003 by the Science Fiction Writers of
Author Susanna Clarke, whose recent book "Jonathan Strange &
Mr. Norrell" is being heralded as the latest great fantasy
novel, said she was inspired by Le Guin's work in the
"She made magic real . . . part of the world. You felt as if
magic must be like this," Clarke said. She said she tried to
make the magic in "Strange" have the same feeling: "Like it
was almost ordinary and mundane, and it produces all sorts
of ordinary problems."
Le Guin said she tries to use her artificial worlds to open
new possibilities to her readers.
She's tired of people who say, "Oh, you write science
fiction? I don't read that kind of thing," "I feel like
saying, 'What do you do, watch Fox News?'"
Science fiction and fantasy offer opportunities to broaden
thought, she said.
"That's what's so great about science fiction and fantasy,
is that you can put your readers into a world that's really
different, maybe in a worse way or in a better way, but you
can show people that there are more possibilities than we
usually think of.
"Like in (her 1969 book) 'The Left Hand of Darkness,' having
people that are both genders. If people can identify with
that, they can open doors in their mind, rather than
thinking, I'm just a woman, I identify myself as a woman."
In science fiction and fantasy, she said, "a lot of doors
are open that we often think are shut. Mental doors, doors
SPEAKING TONIGHT: Ursula K. Le Guin will speak at 6 tonight
at The Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle. For
information, call the bookstore at 206-624-6600.
MINISERIES: "Earthsea," a four-hour miniseries based on the
first two books of Le Guin’s Earthsea books, is scheduled to
premiere on the Sci Fi Channel at 9 p.m. Dec. 13. The series
will star Shawn Ashmore, Kristin Kreuk, Danny Glover and
Isabella Rosellini. For information, check
GO ONLINE: Le Guin’s Web site:
Now available: _The Unspeakable and Others_
Lord Weÿrdgliffe & Necronomicon Page:
News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
"It's a political statement -- or, rather, an
*anti*-political statement. The symbol for *anarchy*!"
-- Batman, explaining the circle-A graffiti, in
_Detective Comics_ #608