|Driven By A Different Chauffeur:|
An Interview With Ursula K. Le Guin
|An interview with Nick Gevers|
| November/December 2001 |
Le Guin wears many creative hats: as poet, essayist, translator, writer for young children, illustrator, mainstream literary author; but it is surely in her Fantasy and SF that her especial genius resides. Her two great series, the Earthsea and Ekumenical tales, are ample evidence of that. Earthsea, many-isled realm of composed and chthonic magics, of dragons and wizards, of frail arrogance and vast humility, was initially explored in the seminal volumes A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1971), and The Farthest Shore (1972); belated additions are Tehanu (1990), Tales From Earthsea (2001), and The Other Wind (2001). The Ekumenical or Hainish Cycle is complex SF, rich in utopian surmise and anthropological reflection; an initial trilogy of interrelated long novellas, Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), and City of Illusions (1967), was followed by the major novels The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), the Vietnam War allegory The Word for World is Forest (1976), and several notable stories in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975); in recent years, the collections A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995), and The Birthday of the World (2002), along with the novel The Telling (2000), have exhibited the continued vitality of the Ekumen as a laboratory for sociological and gender thought-experiments. Le Guin's non-series novels, such as The Lathe of Heaven (1971) and Always Coming Home (1985), are of major significance also, but as her recent work is largely pre-occupied with matters of Ekumen and Earthsea, it is there that the emphasis of this interview naturally falls.
I interviewed Ursula Le Guin by letter in November/December of 2001, in anticipation of the publication of her major new collection, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, by Harper Collins US in March 2002. Le Guin is a subtly but firmly opinionated writer, and I posed her some deliberately provocative questions. She responded with all the vigour I hoped for, pouncing on many of my stated assumptions with the kindly didacticism for which she is famed. So: if some of the questions below seem na´ve or crass, please remember, reader, that they were sacrificial in nature, and for all that, many people would agree heartily with their premises. Le Guin's fictions are engines of thought, and much of that thought must run contrary to hers. --- Nick Gevers.
The Telling, Tales from Earthsea, The Other Wind, and The Birthday of the World and Other Stories: four major new books in under two years, including your first novels since Tehanu; probably your most prolific period since the 70s. To what would you ascribe this productivity?
Two of these new books assemble stories I wrote in the 90s but didn't include in my 90s collections A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, Unlocking the Air, Searoad , and Four Ways to Forgiveness. (Those last two, being story-suites, count, in my mind, pretty much the same as novels. Similarly, Tales from Earthsea isn't a novel, but it carries the Earthsea series from Tehanu to The Other Wind without a break.) Then the two novels, The Telling and The Other Wind, came one right after the other at the end of the decade. One came slow, the other fast.
I don't know that I've finished anything. Certainly not the Ekumen, which has no shape and, therefore, no end.
I seem to tend to avoid conclusive conclusions, as it were, she said, evasively and inconclusively. I like to leave doors open.
But I wonder why you find masculine and feminine elements "alienated" in Tehanu and not in A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore, books which have no female characters of any importance. Absence is not alienation?
Tehanu is the beginning of a genuine reconciliation. The first steps are the hard ones.
As for the masculine and feminine elements in Always Coming Home, my own opinion is that it's in that book, of all my works, that the reunion, cooperation, harmony of the genders (among the Kesh) reach perhaps the highest degree. Of course, this would not be visible to people who perceive gender harmony only as a result of either one being superior to or dominating the other. Such people insist on describing Kesh society as "matriarchal", which is nonsense. Apparently their logic is: if it isn't patriarchal, it has to be matriarchal. Hierarchism dies very hard, doesn't it?
As for mellowing, I'd like to be good-natured and open-minded, but certainly do not want to mellow into mere mushiness. Like pears that rot from the inside. I'd rather be like Cabemet. Except that would involved staying bottled up for years...
As for ideology, the hell with it. All of it.
But I do work very hard and consciously at my craft. At the sound, the flow, the exactness, the connections, the implications of my words.
Anyhow, I have never written a plot-driven novel. I admire plot from a vast distance, with unenvious admiration. I don't do it; never did it; don't want to; can't. My stories are driven (rather slowly and erratically, with pauses to admire apparently irrelevant scenery) by a different chauffeur.
A man in a non-industrial economy, who no longer has a source of income, but does have the use of a small piece of land, tends goats and (I'm sorry, I do not recollect any turnips in Earthsea [the turnips were rhetorical--NG]) a kitchen garden, poultry, fruit trees. What else would you suggest that he do, if he likes to eat now and then?
Of course the mere idea of the existence of a non-industrial economy may be what you are considering as "sentimentally nostalgic."
The question of nostalgia deserves looking into. Much fantasy, and science fiction too, draws upon an apparently inalterable human longing for "the peaceable kingdom," the garden Voltaire suggested we cultivate. But terms must be used carefully and respectfully in such a discussion.
Any refusal to accept the abuse of the world by ill-considered, misapplied technologies as desirable/inevitable can be labelled Luddite. All genuine alternatives to Industrial Capitalism can be, and are, dismissed as "nostalgia."
All ideals are positively dangerous. All idealists are dangerous: Pol Pot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jefferson, Lenin, Osama Bin Laden, Francis of Assisi.
What is endangered, and how it is endangered may, however, vary.
And there may be a difference -- a subtle one, a crucial one -- between idealists and ideologues.
Dark visions of a theocratic world have been fuelled by the rise, during the last two or three decades, of the fundamentalist side of every world religion, and the willingness of many people to believe that fundamentalism is religion.
I might point out that the unhappy Earth hinted at in some of the Ekumenical fictions would be only a dark passage on the way to the very far future Earth of my most hopeful book, Always Coming Home. Believing that we have no future but that of high-tech development, urgent expansion, urbanisation, and ruthless exploitation of natural and human resources -- believing that we have to go on as we are going now -- people tend to see that book as backward-turning. It isn't. It looks at, but not back. It's a radical attempt to think outside current assumptions, a refusal of them. It's an attempt to portray a genuinely mature society. To imagine a "climax technology," the principle of which would not be enforced growth, but homeostasis. To offer not a mechanical but an organic model for culture.
I don't know why you ask if I "mean" that any traditional wisdom, or any theocracy, is infallible or exempt from criticism. The Telling is indeed shown as a flexible and rather amiable tradition, very attractive to our point-of-view character; but she and I and they leave infallibility to popes. The Telling has no clergy, even: only people who take on ritual function at certain times. The tradition has no god, gods, hierarchical worship, or prayer. Because she is in the process of discovering it little by little, and because it is a badly damaged, currently illegal tradition, barely clinging to existence, Sutty has no basis from which to criticise it, and no particular reason to do so. But she does remain on the look-out for religiosity of the kind she knew on Earth, which she detests and distrusts with all her heart. Surely the novel does not show the Unist theocracy governing Earth as wise, infallible, or above criticism?
Your question sounds as if you kept thinking "Tibetan Buddhism," and did not believe what I was telling you in the book. An example of why the practice of "telling" takes quite a lot of practice... as it implies listening...
The assumptions stated in the first sentence of this question are simply wrong, which means that I can't answer but can only retort with questions.
Why do you say magic is invalidated in the last three Earthsea books? On what evidence? Because Ged can't do it any more -- one man, who gave up his power knowing what he was doing and why? Has the School on Roke closed? Have the Old Powers died? Are the dragons grounded? Is the Patterner not still in his Grove, and is the Grove not the still and ever-moving center of the world?
I will not say how I "intend" the books to be read; I have and want no control over my readers, except, of course, the sway of the stories themselves. Different people will read my trilogies different ways and that's as it should be. Because the first trilogy is more accessible to kids, they may stop with it, and then come back when they grow up, and go on with the second set.
But if the second trilogy invalidated, or retracted, or revoked the first one, I wouldn't have written it.
The second trilogy enlarges the first, which is very strong but narrow, leaving out far too much of the world.
The second trilogy changes nothing in the first. It sees exactly the same world with different eyes. Almost, I would say, with two eyes, rather than one.
All the books are, in large part, fictional studies of power. The first three see power mostly from the point of view of the powerful. The second three see power from the point of view of people who have none, or have lost it, or who can see their power as one of the illusions of mortality.
By the way, I have finally come up with a name for books like Four Ways and Searoad -- stories that are genuinely connected by place and/or theme and/or characters. Such a book is a story suite, on the analogy of Bach's cello suites. The story suite is a common enough form, particularly in science fiction, that I wish (dream on!) could be recognised as such -- not labelled and dismissed as a collection, certainly not as a "fix-up," but seen as a genuine fictional form in its own right, conceived as such not patched together, and with its own intriguing and complex aesthetic.
Many of my works since the 80s have used multiple narrative voices in various ways. I often find this multiplicity an essential tool to story-telling at this point. Also, it can lead, paradoxically, to brevity; and I'm very fond of the novella length. There is certainly material enough for a novel in "Seggri," but I liked keeping it short, allusive, suggestive. Have had enough of novels where one voice yatters on and on...
You ask if the sedoretu would be practical. I don't know. Is monogamous heterosexual marriage practical? I don't know. My husband and I have done it for forty-eight years, but that could just be luck, and a bit of practice.
But changing planes isn't quite what it was before the eleventh of September of this year, is it?
At the moment I am working hard to complete a translation of a fairly large portion of the poetry of the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. After that, quien sabe?
Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
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