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Driven By A Different Chauffeur:
An Interview With Ursula K. Le Guin

An interview with Nick Gevers
November/December 2001

© Marian Kolisch
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929, the daughter of a writer and an anthropologist. She published her first novel, Rocannon's World, in 1966. Her fourth novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, a feat she repeated with The Dispossessed (1974). The Earthsea trilogy established her as a master of fantasy as well as science fiction. She has also published poetry and short story collections, and she received the Pilgrim Award in 1989 for her critical writings.

Ursula K. Le Guin Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Telling
SF Site Review: The Other Wind
SF Site Review: The Telling
SF Site Review: The Dispossessed
Le Guin's World
The Ekumen: An Ursula K. Le Guin Reference Page

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories
The Other Wind
The Telling

Chris Moore
The Dispossessed
A Wizard of Earthsea
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Lathe of Heaven
Hainish Cycle
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

Ursula K. Le Guin has something of the quality of legend. She is the author of novels that are among the foundation stones of modern SF and Fantasy; her writing is extraordinarily wise and graceful, a salient influence on the style and subject matter of the speculative genres since the late 60s; she has won innumerable literary awards, and in the last twelve years has been revisiting in a fascinating manner the fictional milieux that generated her early and her lasting fame...

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?
This effect of immense industriousness is an artefact of the peculiarities of the publishing industry. I was writing along at about my usual rate for some years without being sure where to publish in book form (for various reasons -- changes of editors, of literary agents, etc.). My new publisher, Harcourt, once they got onto me, were eager to print everything I gave them in very short order; and then my old publisher, Harper, suddenly decided I was still alive. So I end up with four books in two years (five, counting a long-delayed kid's book, Tom Mouse, to come out in March.)

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 [1991], 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.

The hallmark of your work over the last decade has been a return to, a revisioning of, your original Hainish and Earthsea sequences. One should never speak too soon, but do you think you've now finished with Earthsea and the Ekumen, rounded them off conclusively?
Earthsea got revisited and revisioned, and certain obscurities were made clear. The Ekumen worlds merely got further explored, it seems to me.

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.

Your newest works have a strong reconciliatory air: not a compromise with patriarchy and tyranny, but a bringing together of masculine and feminine elements that seemed mutually alienated in your middle-period works like Always Coming Home and Tehanu. Have you mellowed? Or has your ideological emphasis simply shifted?
Thank you; I like "reconciliatory not compromising."

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.

In line with the previous question: your style has shifted with time, from a rich mythic/epic register early on to the spare, precisely honed diction of your 80s work. Now, the two seem to combine, alternating or mingling in a stylistic reconciliation. How deliberate is this fusion?
Nothing I do is exactly deliberate.

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.

A striking contrast between the original Earthsea and Ekumen novels and their recent successors is the latter's move from action to observation: The Telling and The Other Wind are contemplative and discursive rather than plot-driven. Why is this?
Probably because I was getting into my seventies when I wrote them. There is something about one's body as it gets around seventy years old that induces -- strongly -- often imperatively -- a shift from action to observation. Action at seventy tends to lead to a lot of saying ow, ow, ow. Observation, however, can be rewarding. As I never have been sure where my body leaves off and my mind begins or vice-versa, it seems unsurprising to me that the condition of one of them induces a similar condition in the other.

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.

Ever since Always Coming Home, you've seemed to advocate a profound simplicity of life-style: communal, agrarian, sustainable. The Kesh of Always live that way, and then there are the folk of O, Ged in his goat-tending and turnip-cultivating retirement on Gont, et cetera. But isn't this idea sentimentally nostalgic, and, in the wrong hands (Pol Pot) positively dangerous?
Could we have this question again? There is a genuine problem in it, but in its present form I cannot answer it; it seems to either answer itself or destroy itself. The terms are ideological and self-contradictory. A "sustainable" life-style is "sentimentally nostalgic"?

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.

The fate of Earth in the Ekumen series is not exactly apocalyptic, but quite bleak, blighted, and theocratic, as hinted in The Dispossessed and shown in more detail in "Dancing to Ganam" and The Telling. How close is this portrait to your actual expectations for the planet?
I don't know. Sometimes I think I am just trying superstitiously to avert evil by talking about it; I certainly don't consider my fictions prophetic. Yet throughout my whole adult life, I have watched us blighting our world irrevocably, irremediably, and mindlessly -- ignoring every warning and neglecting every benevolent alternative in the pursuit of "growth" and immediate profit. It is quite hard to live in the United States in 2001 and feel any long term hopefulness about the unrelenting use of increasingly exploitative and destructive technologies: not so much weaponry, at this point, as technologies that could and should be useful and productive -- fuel sources, agriculture, genetic engineering, even medicine. And, of course, we keep breeding.

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.

The Telling could be read as a science-fictional allegory of the plight of the Tibetans under Chinese rule, or more broadly of the suppression of traditional wisdom under Communism of a corporatist sort, as in China as a whole. Does this mean that such traditional wisdom (theocratic in nature in Tibet) is infallible, or exempt from criticism in its turn?
Actually, it was not Tibetan Buddhism, but what happened to the practice and teaching of Taoism under Mao that was the initial impetus of the book. I was shocked to find that a 2500-year-old body of thought, belief, ritual, and art could be, had been, essentially destroyed within ten years, and shocked to find I hadn't known it, though it happened during my adult lifetime. The atrocity, and my long ignorance of it, haunted me. I had to write about it, in my own sidelong fashion.

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 Other Wind completes a retraction or renunciation, begun in Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea, of the premises of the original Earthsea trilogy: magic itself is invalidated to a great degree. How do you intend the first three books to be read now? In their spontaneous, shall we say, majesty, or with the qualification of hindsight?
Well, Nick, and when did you stop beating your wife?

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.

Looking now at the stories in The Birthday of the World: "Old Music and the Slave Women" is a continuation of the Werel novella cycle already published as Four Ways to Forgiveness. Is "Old Music" a similarly-patterned fifth way to forgiveness, or does it differ in its essence from the earlier Werel/Yeowe tales?
Thank you for talking about new and recent work. So many people don't, and I do get weary of answering questions about novels I wrote thirty years ago! Of course, I have developed nice glib answers to the more inevitable questions about them, while I may stammer a bit about the more recent works. "Old Music and the Slave Women" is a fifth way to forgiveness that didn't get itself written in time to get into the book. It is, however, a bit bleaker than the first four. (See above re Idealists.) It is a mourning for the horrors of war. Old wars, new wars. Goya's wars. Our wars.

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.

"Coming of Age in Karhide" is an unexpectedly direct return to the setting of The Left Hand of Darkness. Is it a sequel to that famous novel, or more of an anthropological footnote to it?
Well, a short story can't be a sequel to a novel, but it can follow from it (sequitur) -- no? If it's a footnote, I wouldn't call it so much anthropological as sexual. It seemed high time we got all the way into a kemmerhouse. With a native guide, instead of a poor uptight Earth guy trying to figure out what's going on and being disturbed by it.... Left Hand gives the reader very little opportunity to experience being double-gendered, since Estraven is mostly in somer; there's only a brief, though crucial, scene involving kemmer, and most of that is from Genly's POV. I wanted to explore it as a natural, universal experience, instead of a weird alien condition. Back in 1968, I and most readers needed Genly Ai's POV to mediate the strangeness. I don't think we do, now. (Si muove lente, eppur si muove!)

"The Matter of Seggri" is perhaps the most experimental of your late Hainish tales, a particularly radical and affecting take on gender relations. What inspired its male-scarcity scenario, and your decision to employ such a multiplicity of narrative voices?
I kept reading about how many female foetuses were being aborted in India, China, and other societies where the only baby worth having is a male, and about the future surplus of men and deficit of women if the trend continues. My bent imagination bent this whole scenario around and produced a great surplus of women, which biologically speaking is of course far more practical, but humanly speaking...? Well, that is where the imagination actually gets to work. Producing a story. A set of stories. As many stories as there are people... Hence, perhaps, the variety of voices.

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...

The O stories -- "Mountain Ways" and "Unchosen Love" -- are (like the earlier "Another Story") set in a society divided into two elaborate moieties and practicing a profoundly cumbersome marital system. Would such a four-person hetero- and homo-sexual menage be practical? Or is this "sedoretu" system a thought experiment, a satiric or parodic construct?
Well, writing the stories, I thought of the sedoretu as pure thought-experiment -- a highly enjoyable tool for exploring human relations and emotions. I hadn't exactly thought of it as satirical. We are so good at making life difficult for ourselves, not least by inventing almost impossible customs. Monogamous lifelong heterosexual marriage is such a peculiar institution that it hardly seems to need to be made fun of. But of course if you make marriage even harder than it is, involving four people instead of two, and homosexuality as well as heterosexuality, it gets even more interesting. At least, it does to me. But I find all cumbersome cultural constructs and customs interesting. I am an anthropologist's daughter, after all.

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.

"The Birthday of the World": is this a retelling of sorts of the Spanish conquest of Peru? Does the story form part of the Hainish Cycle?
Certain aspects of the society in the story were borrowed from Incan Peru, and the absoluteness and suddenness of the social collapse resemble what happened to the Incan Empire when the Spanish came, but it's not meant to be a commentary in any way on that society and that event. I guess it's partly a meditation on the also noteworthy fragility of our cultural constructs. Whether it's an Ekumenical story I honestly don't know. It could be.

Who, for you, are the finest SF authors now writing -- both your fellow feminist writers and more generally?
First I am to list fellow feminists and then... non-fellow anti-feminists? Come on, Nick, let's get out of the pigeonholes. If feminism is the idea that differences between the genders, beyond the strictly physiological, are an interesting subject of study, but have not been determined, and so are not a sound basis for society to use in prescribing or proscribing any proclivity or activity -- which is what I think it is -- then I probably don't read any non-feminist SF writers, these days. Do you? Anyhow, I hate trying to answer this who-do-you-like-best question, because I always leave out people I meant to mention, and then kick myself later. Allow me to dodge this one, OK?

You've been writing fascinating "Interplanary" sociological portraits for a while now. When do you expect to assemble these into Changing Planes? And what other projects lie on the horizon?
Thank you for asking, and for calling those stories fascinating. I have been afraid people might find them infuriating. They certainly exemplify my fine disregard for plot. Perhaps they will puzzle some of my critics, who treat my work as if it had all the comic possibilities of a lead ingot. Anyhow, the manuscript is out; it is in the hands of the agents, the publishers, the editors, the Fates, the Furies, whoever. I hope there will be a book of Changing Planes.

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?

Copyright © 2002 Nick Gevers

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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