“Introduction” from Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume Two

The star-spanning story of humanity’s colonization of other planets, Ursula K. Le Guin’s visionary Hainish novels and stories redrew the map of modern science fiction, making it a rich field for literary explorations of “the nature of human nature,” as Margaret Atwood has described Le Guin’s subject. Now, for the first time, the complete Hainish novels and stories are collected in a definitive two-volume Library of America edition, with new introductions by the author.

This second volume in a definitive two-volume edition gathers Le Guin’s final two Hainish novels, The Word for World Is Forest, in which Earth enslaves another planet to strip its natural resources, and The Telling, the harrowing story of a society which has suppressed its own cultural heritage. Rounding out the volume are seven short stories and the story suite Five Ways to Forgiveness, published here in full for the first time. The endpapers feature a full-color chart of the known worlds of Hainish descent.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories publishes September 5th from Library of America. We’re pleased to share Le Guin’s new introduction to volume two below.

 

 

The novels and stories of the Hainish Descent were written in two periods separated by at least a decade. Everything in the first volume of this collected edition dates from the 1960s and ’70s, except one story from 1995; in the second volume, after one short novel from 1976, everything is from the 1990s. During the eighties I didn’t revisit the Hainish Universe at all (nor, until 1989, did I go back to Earthsea). When I became aware of this discontinuity, I wondered what kept me away from these literary realms I had invented, explored, established, and what brought me back to them.

That’s the sort of question interviewers and critics often ask and I usually dodge, uncomfortable with their assumption of rational choice guided by conscious decision. I may have intentions, as a writer, but they’re seldom that clear. Sometimes I find there is a certain tendency to my readings and thoughts, a general direction in which I am drawn—evidenced in a wish to learn more about certain subjects or fields (sleep and dream studies, satyagraha, medieval mining, DNA research, slavery, gender frequency, the Aeneid, the Inca). If this impulsion continues and gains energy, the subject matter of a story or novel may emerge from it. But it is an impulsion, not a decision. The decisions will be called for when the planning and writing begin.

It is as if I were the skipper of a ship and find my ship sailing always, irresistibly to the south. To sail safely southward, I must plot my course and trim my sails and look out for reefs. But what is the current that impels me? Am I going to Kerguelen, Cape Horn, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica? Often there isn’t much use asking until I’m halfway there and able to see the drift of my journey; sometimes only after I’ve come to the end of it can I look back on the way I took.

A line in one of Theodore Roethke’s poems is a cornerstone of thought for me: “I learn by going where I have to go.” The poet is saying that he didn’t know where he had to go until he found himself going there, and also that by going where he must go he’d learn the way to it. Like Lao Tzu’s “knowing by not knowing, doing by not doing,” this is a willingness to relinquish control, an act of trust. It both describes my own experience as a writer and gives me guidance.

In retrospect, it seems that by 1980 I was ready to trust my luck. Written within the general conventions of science fiction and fantasy, my books had sold well enough and received enough favorable notice that my agent, Virginia Kidd, could find publishers who would take a chance on something unexpected or unconventional from me. It must be hard for young writers to believe these days, but even some of the big, commercial, corporation-owned publishers used to allow their editors to take chances.

I certainly gave those editors the opportunity to do so, and am grateful to them for taking it. I sailed right off the fantasy and science fiction maps, first with the ungenrifiable Always Coming Home, then by setting realistic stories on the Oregon coast and a fantasy in the Oregon desert, by publishing several books for children, two of poetry, and two of literary and political essays. This might appear more like wandering fecklessly about than finding a way forward, but looking back on what I wrote and didn’t write in that decade, I do see some pattern and direction to it. I was learning how to think what I thought and say it, how to write from and with my own body and mind, not a borrowed one. I was coming home to myself as a woman and as a woman of the American West. I learned by going where I had to go.

At the end of that ten-year exploration of my own inner territories, I was able to see my old Earthsea with new eyes, and to return to the worlds of the Hainish descent ready to play very freely with the imaginative opportunities they offered.


 

My 1977 introductory note for The Word for World is Forest (in the Appendix of this volume) explains how and where the book came to be written, and expresses my fear that it might end up, like many passionate testimonies of political opinion, a victim of its own relevance. However, since my country learned nothing from its defeat in Vietnam and has held ever since to the policy of making war by invasion and attack, the story’s argument against aggression continued and continues to apply. I wish it didn’t.

In the introduction I wrote in 1977 for this novel, I tell the tale of how, after it was published, I came to believe—or to hope to believe—that counterparts of my Athsheans existed on our earth in a Philippine people called the Senoi. But the seductively convincing study by Kilton Stewart of Senoi “dream culture,” presented and published as anthropology, was presently shown to be largely wishful thinking.[1] There was no wonderful convergence of my fantasy with reality; my earthly models for Athshean dreaming must remain fragmentary. It was an excellent demonstration of the difference between science and science fictions, which it behoves both scientist and novelist to respect. On the other hand, the lack of a real-life model doesn’t affect the fictional reality of my Athsheans; it reduces the scientific while increasing the speculative element of the novel. The powers of Athshean dreaming, its existence as the life-technique of a whole people, can be categorized only as fantasy. But the powers of the unconscious mind, the uses of dream, are central elements of twentieth-century psychology, and there the novel was and is on solid speculative ground.

A final note on Word for World: a high-budget, highly successful film resembled the novel in so many ways that people have often assumed I had some part in making it. Since the film completely reverses the book’s moral premise, presenting the central and unsolved problem of the book, mass violence, as a solution, I’m glad I had nothing at all to do with it.


 

Several of the short stories in this volume are connected. “The Shobies’ Story” shares several characters with “Dancing to Ganam,” and both of them share the idea of transilience with “Another Story.”

Long ago I made up the ansible, a device that would permit people light-years apart to talk to one another without interval. Most science-fictional spaceships go much faster than light (FTL), but mine stolidly obey Einstein, going only nearly as fast as light (NAFAL). Travel through the Hainish galaxy involves the Einsteinian paradoxes of time dilation. The traveler in a NAFAL ship traversing the distance of a hundred light-years experiences the interval between departure and arrival as very brief, perhaps an hour or two, while on the home world and the destination more than a century is passing. Such gaps in relative time would forbid any continuous interchange of information between worlds. This is why FTL is so popular: you really can’t have a Galactic War without it. I didn’t want a war, but I did want my worlds to be able to talk with one another, so in 1966 I introduced the ansible. Later on, I met its inventor, Shevek, the temporal physicist in The Dispossessed, who could explain the principles on which it functions much better than I can. I’m pleased that several other science fiction writers have found the ansible useful—stealing ideas is plagiarism, but both art and science function by sharing them.

Around 1990 I was allured by the notion of transilience, the transfer of a physical body from one point in space-time to another without interval. The Cetian word for it is churten. From time to time it has, as it were, been done. Madeleine L‘Engle called it a wrinkle in time. Sometimes I think my cat churtens downstairs, but I do not know how he does it. My stories about churtening indicate that, even after doing it, nobody is certain how they did it or that it can be done more than once in the same way. In this it much resembles life.

In the introduction to the 1994 collection containing these stories, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, I wrote: “All three of the churten stories are also metafictions, stories about story. In ‘The Shobies’ Story,’ transilience acts as a metaphor for narration, and narration as the chancy and unreliable but most effective means of constructing a shared reality. ‘Dancing to Ganam’ continues with the theme of unreliable narration or differing witness, with a hi-tech hubristic hero at its eccentric center, and adds the lovely theory of entrainment to the churten stew. And finally, ‘Another Story’—one of my very few experiments with time travel—explores the possibility of two stories about the same person in the same time being completely different and completely true.”

The full title, “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea,” is both a self-referential in-joke about the story itself, and a direct reference to the Japanese folktale I read as a child in Lafcadio Hearn’s beautiful retelling. The tale went down deep in me and lived there until, as such stories will do, it came up and flowered again.

As a love story, it connects with two others, “Unchosen Love” and “Mountain Ways.” All three take place on the world called O, a fairly near neighbor of Hain. Human beings have lived on both these worlds for hundreds of thousands of years, and their civilizations have reached a kind of steady state, like a climax forest, expressed in durable yet various, vigorous, and adaptable cultures. An element of the social structure on O is an unusual form of marriage, the sedoretu, which institutionalizes both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in an intricate four-part arrangement laden with infinite emotional possibilities—a seductive prospect to a storyteller. I explored a few such possibilities in the ghost story “Unchosen Love” and the semi-comedy “Mountain Ways,” in which cross-gender role playing further convolutes the complicated.

In the mid-nineties I wrote at least six “gender-bending” stories (among them “Coming of Age in Karhide,” in the first Hainish volume). I was solidifying and celebrating gains. The hard study I had put into rethinking my understanding of sexuality and gender was working itself out, paying off imaginatively. To escape from the misplaced expectations and demands of a male-centered literature, I’d had to learn how to write as a woman. Now I was ready—and had an audience ready—to learn what a woman might write about. We’d kicked the fence down—where to gallop?

I invented the sedoretu in a playful spirit, enjoying both my take-off on the elaborate descriptions required by anthropological kinship studies and trying to imagine how individuals would adapt (as we do adapt) to such complex sexual arrangements and consider them perfectly natural. My knowledge of anthropology is slight, but it is a familiar acquaintance, and it gave me some insight into the inexhaustible strangeness of human social customs and the all but universal human refusal to see anything strange about them if they’re our own customs, and anything good about them if they’re not.

“The Matter of Seggri,” written in the same period as the stories of O, was not written playfully. Still, I don’t think I realised while I was working on the various sketches that compose it how bleak a picture I was drawing. It arose, as a good many science fiction stories do, from a question to which science has not yet found a generally accepted answer. There are a lot of such questions in gender studies, but this one is quite basic: Why are there as many men as there are women? It takes very few males (of any species) to impregnate a whole lot of females, ensuring the next generation. What’s the need for all those extra males? Answers to this seemingly simple-minded question are complicated, involving the gene pool, probability theory, and more mathematics than I can follow, and no one of them is yet accepted as completely sufficient. There is no reason, after all, to expect a complex phenomenon to have a single cause. The uncertainty still surrounding the question gave some plausibility to the basic assumption, or gimmick, of my story: a human society consisting mostly of women. The idea has been explored many times from a somewhat excited male point of view—“hive worlds,” Amazons, etc.—and, more recently, by feminists.

The women of Seggri, sixteen times more numerous than the men, have worked out a stable and generally harmonious society. They value their men highly, protect and segregate them as both endangered and dangerous, encourage their hormonal display via competitive feats and aggressive games, but keep them from any pursuit or knowledge that by empowering them as human beings might interfere with their function as sexual objects and breeding stock. The resulting misery, injustice, and waste of human potential, though differently gendered, is only too familiar.

In one section of “Seggri” the reversal of sexual stereotypes is particularly obvious, the sub-story called ‘Love Out of Place.’ It is a deliberate imitation of works I read in my youth by Maupassant, Flaubert, and others, which distressed and angered me deeply, though I had to wait for feminist thinkers to tell me why. The unquestioned assumption of the story is that men are what women perceive them to be. A man has no existence and can do nothing of any significance apart from his relationships to women. He accepts this extreme impoverishment of his being because his whole society—including the author—accepts it. I have seldom disliked a story so much as I wrote it. It was a relief to go on the next section, unhappy as much of it is, written from the point of view of a man suffocating in such a life and struggling to escape—to be a person, to have a point of view.

The final story, “Solitude,” takes an even more radical view of personhood. Having been an introvert all my life in a society that adores extraversion, I felt it was time to speak up for myself and my people, to imagine for us a society where loners are the norm and the gregarious and self-advertising are the oddballs, the misfits. I invented a peculiar social arrangement involving an extreme kind of gender segregation, only tenuously connected to the extra/introversion theme. My fear of the ongoing human catastrophe of unlimited growth, imagery of the ruinous aftermath of overpopulation and mindless exploitation, which has haunted much of my science fiction for forty years or more, is very clear in the story. All the same, I ended up feeling quite at home on poor, impoverished Soro, a world without crowds, teams, or armies, where everybody is an oddball and a misfit.


 

Joining protest movements and nonviolent demonstrations against nuclear bomb tests and wars and for abortion, women’s, and lesbian-gay rights, I took a small active part in some of the immense social revolutions of my time. Racism I confronted only through my writing. In the late sixties, embarrassed by the traditional vanilla universe of science fiction and fantasy and wanting to subvert it, I took the simple course of basing my novels and stories on the (perfectly rational) assumption that “colored” is the human norm.

I made no fuss about this, and for a long time nobody said anything about it. The assumption that heroes are white men was so deeply ingrained that it blinded many readers to what the books state perfectly clearly. Almost all the books’ publishers, despite my protests, permitted cover illustrations showing white faces only. Still, even if I could do it only in imaginary worlds, and nobody in this one seemed to notice, it was a satisfaction to me to dump the mechanical, vicious stereotypes of racial supremacy and do away with the sign on the doors of genre fiction that said to readers—silently but unmistakably—Whites Only.

In most of my invented societies skin color has no social implications at all. But when I came to write stories about slavery, as an American I could not in conscience escape the fatal connection of color and supremacy. To subvert it, I again reversed expectation, showing a dark-skinned people as masters of light-skinned slaves. But to reverse a wrong is not to escape from it. Writing of these worlds, I had to work my way through the terrible story that my own country is still telling.

The first of these slavery pieces, “Betrayals,” takes place on the “plantation world” Yeowe after a successful slave revolution; the others are set at different times during the revolution, some on Yeowe and some on the home planet, Werel. As I wrote them, connections among them through both events and characters kept strengthening. The result was not a novel, but what I call a story suite.

As a set of stories thus connected has no generally accepted name, I took one from music. The several movements of a Bach cello suite don’t assume a unified form like a sonata, and yet each of the six suites is undoubtedly an entity, unified by more than a common key. The parts of a suite discuss, as it were, the same subject in different ways. In fiction, at least two major nineteenth century works are suites, Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs and Gaskell’s Cranford, and the form continues to turn up—it could be argued that some of David Mitchell’s novels are actually story suites.

Thinking that “A Woman’s Liberation” was the final story of the suite, I published Four Ways to Forgiveness. But the character called Old Music began to tell me a fifth tale about the latter days of the civil war, and haunting memories of a tourist visit to a plantation in South Carolina gave me its setting. I’m glad to see it joined to the others at last. But it makes a very bitter ending to the suite, and in fact I didn’t intend it to stop there. I wanted to follow the character Metoy back to the place where he was born a slave and made a eunuch; but that story would not come clear, and I have not been able to write the sixth and last way to forgiveness.


 

Like The Word for World Is Forest, The Telling had its origin in a moral and political issue or concern, and in a personal sense of shame.

Never having been forced to participate in or to escape from organized religion, I have been able to regard it peaceably, open to its great achievements in art and thought and to the life-giving winds of the spirit that blow through it. The wind of the spirit that blew earliest and sweetest on me was Lao Tzu’s voice, speaking of the Way, the Tao. I knew it only in his book and Chuang Tzu’s, and in Western philosophical commentaries on them. Of religious Taoism, I knew vaguely that it was highly institutionalized, with divinities, priests, rituals, and a great paraphernalia of practises and beliefs, and traced its origin back over the millennia somehow to Lao Tzu’s spare, subversive, godless meditations. I did not know that during my adult lifetime this immense, ancient structure had been almost completely destroyed by an aggressive secular fundamentalism, a politics of belief demanding blind obedience to a nearly-deified leader. When I did finally realize this, I was both shocked by the fact and ashamed of my ignorance. Moved both to understand and to make amends, I set out to learn, through imagining it in a story, how such destruction might take place so quickly.

In my story the secular persecution of an ancient, pacific, non-theistic religion on another world is instigated by a violent monotheistic sect on Earth. The Telling comes a lot closer home than China. Only recently have I ever feared institutionalized religion, as I see divisive, exclusive, aggressive fundamentalisms absorb and pervert the energy of every major creed, and Americans abandoning the secular vision of freedom on which our republic stands.

On a happier note, writing the book gave me the pleasure of exploring the old Akan way of life and thought, a peaceful journey up a river and a terrific one into the mountains, and a glimpse of a love so star-crossed, repressed, subliminal, and impossible that the lovers never know it’s there.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Portland, Oregon
December 2016

[1] “Dream Theory in Malaya,” Complex (1951).

From Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories, edited by Brian Attebery, a two-volume hardcover boxed set published by Library of America. Copyright © 2017 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.

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