URSULA K. LE GUIN: WHO PROVIDED DIRECTION…
from Sue Wurster
This week, we lost one of the brightest lights in our science fiction cosmos: Ursula K. Le Guin. Over the course of her 90 years, this prolific writer added more than 100 short stories, 4 collections of essays, 7 volumes of poetry, and 19 novels to our collective shelves.
While I devoured much of all that she provided us, it was two of those short stories and one speech that taught me how to see…and, thus, think. The two stories are Direction of the Road and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? she asks in a speech delivered in Clarion, Pennsylvania in 1974.
Direction of the Road is a short, dramatic monologue about Progress beginning with the line, “They didn’t used to be so demanding.” The speaker is an oak tree who talks, essentially, about the relativity of motion–growing and diminishing for the drivers/passengers who travel her road. As humans begin to travel that road at higher and higher speeds, her abilities are severely tested until, at one point, a driver “completely violates the direction of the road” and hits her. It is in hat moment that the tree loses her immortality–the driver saw her in her fullest being and saw nothing else ever again. It is this loss that the tree protests. (to read the full story, click here: Direction of the Road)
The story was apparently inspired by one particular tree that was situated along the side of a country road Le Guin often traveled in the Portland, Oregon area where she lived. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas was also inspired by her Oregon drives–specifically, the sign she saw, backward, in her rearview mirror: “You are now leaving Salem, O.” In this compelling short story/utilitarian philosophic exploration, Omelas and its inhabitants live serenely, happily, and without guilt…on a foundation constructed of cruelty. (to read the full story, click here: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas).
Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons? was delivered at 1974’s Clarion writers’ workshop at Clarion State College. In that address, Le Guin talked about the place (or non-place) of fantasy in our society. I was totally able to relate to her opening story about going to the children’s room of her local library to find a copy of The Hobbit only to be told that “Oh, we don’t keep that in the children’s room. We don’t believe that kind of fantasy is good for children.” So, she went to the adult room only to be told that “Oh, we don’t keep children’s books here.” For quite a long time in this country, we had this sort of “logjam mindset” when it came to fantasy. (to read the full speech, click here: Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?)
Le Guin, born Ursula Kroeber, was raised in Berkeley, California. Her father was the noted anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, and her mother was the writer Theodora Kroeber. Clearly, intellectualism and scholarship were valued when it came to her upbringing. And she reveled in it. She graduated from Radcliffe and studied at Columbia University before settling in Portland, Oregon to write.
Several of her novels–including The Left Hand of Darkness, her first major work of science fiction–have been heralded for her ground-breaking and radical utilitarianism. Other strikingly effective pieces include the powerful novella, The Word for the World is Forest as well as The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, and the children’s fantasy series, The Wizard of Earthsea.
Le Guin received the National Book Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, SFWA’s Grand Master, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Howard Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award. She was a finalist for the American Book Award (three times) as well as the Pulitzer Prize.
What did I learn from Ursula Le Guin that has stuck with me all these years? To paraphrase a line from Direction of the Road, “if human beings will not understand Relativity, they must come to understand Relatedness.”
Thank you, Ms. Le Guin, for providing so many truly unique standpoints from which to view our world!
Speculative and science fiction give me a chance to stand on my head in a way I was never able to do in P.E. Other favorite writers include Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, and, of course, that wonderful word man Ray Bradbury.