What Did Ursula K. Le Guin Really Think About Dystopian Science Fiction?

Disdain seemed to overtake the voice of Ursula K. Le Guin in the passage quoted below about her life and work. The article by Zoe Carpenter suggests that Le Guin was disenchanted, or perhaps even bored, by the mere idea of dystopia.

For someone preoccupied with humanity’s ability to destroy itself and the rest of the natural world, Le Guin is notably disinterested in dystopias. Frankly, they bore her. “I think they’re just ground out,” she told me. “They’re just the latest way to write sci-fi novels. Don’t readers ever get tired of being told that the world is coming to a nasty, ugly end and only a very few people will survive, by luck and by violence?” Nor does Le Guin think much of the kind of shallow moralism used to justify invasions and torture. She has written through plenty of dark territory, but with an eye fixed on the constant stars of kindness and bravery.

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This take on dystopia seems to completely miss the purpose of that story world. Is it possible Le Guin thought so little of dystopian stories as to dismiss the entire subgenre completely?

Dystopia isn’t necessarily a “fad” or “shallow moralism.” Some writers will jump on nearly any shiny new literary bandwagon, but Le Guin isn’t likely to have stereotyped an entire subgenre of science fiction just because she couldn’t imagine new stories to be told using that approach.

Based on the quote alone, Le Guin says that dystopia itself is “ground out” and “just the latest way to write sci-fi novels.” Dystopia is as old as science fiction itself, and is an integral part of the genre. Trends and fads don’t render an entire subgenre obsolete.

The quotation overgeneralises in a puzzling way. Anyone can write whatever they want, but it’s strange that Le Guin seemed to dismiss dystopias completely in the quoted passage. If she had focused specifically on superficial ways of writing dystopian fiction, the quote would have made more sense.

Dystopia, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is

1 : an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives

2 literature : anti-utopia · writing a dystopia

—dystopian \-pē-ən\ adjective

The definition of dystopian is not “and it all comes to a nasty, ugly end, and only a few people will survive, by luck and violence.” Dystopia is a state of society and/or the physical world, not an event in the story itself (‘a nasty, ugly end’). That’s what’s odd about the Le Guin quote. It doesn’t make sense.

Given that Le Guin was one of the most well-regarded figures in science fiction and fantasy, it’s not likely that she spoke carelessly. So what did Ursula K. Le Guin actually mean?

Two quotations might clarify her perspective. For Le Guin, the oppositions that create dystopia (and utopia) are gendered. Yang is male, and yin is female.

Le Guin’s approach is informed by Taoism, where opposing forces are interdependent.

She elaborates in No Time to Spare: “Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.” For Le Guin, there’s an overabundance of yang in American culture—one that’s reflected in its science fiction. She says, “Many contemporary dystopias provide such a great opportunity to wallow in gratuitous cruelty and mindless violence. Yin is for losers.” So much, then, for the philosophical cautionary tale.

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In this passage, Le Guin doesn’t dismiss dystopia itself. Her rejection is of an opportunistic use of cruelty and violence. The excess of yang (male) destructive “penetration” energy overwhelms and drowns out the “receptive” yin (female) energy.

That’s a decent start, but does Le Guin offer any thoughts for how to escape the endless cycle of dystopian yang in science fiction — and perhaps in society itself?

Definitive elaboration on the question naturally comes the celebrated author’s unabridged thinking, expounded upon in the completed essay as published in a 2017 collection, NO TIME TO SPARE: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The essay is titled, “We keep writing dystopias instead of envisioning a better world—maybe what we need is balance“. Le Guin continues with the Taoist metaphor of yin and yang, ending on a perhaps-hopeful note (emphasis added):

Through psychological and political control, these dystopias have achieved a nondynamic stasis that allows no change. The balance is immovable: one side up, the other down. Everything is yang forever.

Where is the yin dystopia? Is it perhaps in post-holocaust stories and horror fiction with its shambling herds of zombies, the increasingly popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control — chaos and old night?

Yang perceives yin only as negative, inferior, bad, and yang has always been given the last word. But there is no last word.

At present we seem only to write dystopias. Perhaps in order to be able to write a utopia we need to think yinly. I tried to write one in Always Coming Home. Did I succeed?

Is a yin utopia a contradiction in terms, since all the familiar utopias rely on control to make them work, and yin does not control? Yet it is a great power. How does it work?

I can only guess. My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.

Ursula K. Le Guin wasn’t just “bored” by dystopia. She wanted sci-fi creators to use it as a radical agent for change. Although Le Guin is no longer among us, her energetic words can continue to reveal new alternatives, undiscovered elsewheres that science fiction might describe in hopes that society might follow, before it’s too late.

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