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Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin

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Ursula K Le Guin

Author Ursula K Le Guin poses with her award at the PEN USA Annual LitFest Awards Gala at the Biltmore Hotel on November 9, 2005 in Los Angeles, California.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

How has the speculative fiction landscape changed since your first novel?

Le Guin: It's so much bigger. When I was first in SFWA, we pretty much literally knew each other. ... Now, it has become a commercially profitable field to exploit. So the science fiction section of the bookstore is about 20 times bigger than it was -- or they didn't even used to have them. But the level of writing, I'm afraid, has remained the same, or in some ways become less.... A lot of people have sort of drifted out of science fiction and left it to the essentially commodity writers, who just kind of grind out the same stuff over and over -- the sort of soulless series that just go on. There's an awful lot of them in fantasy too.

Who do you feel are your peers today?

Le Guin: Carol Emshwiller is really a good case in point. I feel like Carol keeps exploring new things. Her publishers don't understand it. Very few people understand. Carol is the most unappreciated great writer we've got. Carmen Dog ought to be a classic in the colleges by now, and I think it would be if somehow people knew about it. It's so funny, and it's so keen. Carol just hasn't found her critics or her audience somehow yet. But so long as there's writers like that, I don't feel lonesome.

What were you reading as a kid that influenced you?

Le Guin: Once I learned to read, I read everything [laughs]. I read all the famous fantasies -- Alice in Wonderland, and Wind in the Willows, and Kipling. I adored Kipling's Jungle Book. And then when I got older I found Lord Dunsany. He opened up a whole new world -- the world of pure fantasy. And ... Worm Ouroboros [by E.R. Eddison]. Again, pure fantasy. Very, very fattening. And then my brother and I blundered into science fiction when I was 11 or 12. Early Asimov, things like that. But that didn't have too much effect on me. It wasn't until I came back to science fiction and discovered Sturgeon -- but particularly Cordwainer Smith. ... I read the story "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard," and it just made me go, "Wow! This stuff is so beautiful, and so strange, and I want to do something like that."

What's changed about the Hainish worlds since Rocannon's World?

Le Guin: In Rocannon's World it isn't even the Ekumen, it's the League of Worlds. That was pretty much sort of like Star Trek -- a very dim notion of, well, there's got to be some kind of organization out there. Then the League of Worlds fell apart in about the third novel, kind of off-stage, and then the Ekumen begins to show up. I began to understand who the Hainish were and that they had actually sort of seeded all the known worlds. ... Which is, scientifically speaking, absolute hokum. We on Earth can trace our ancestry, and it's primate, and it's Earthly. But for the sake of writing novels, it's very convenient to have everybody be at least like cousins, so they can hopefully talk to each other and possibly fall in love and things like that.

For some people romance is one of the things they expect in a novel.

Le Guin: Not if they read science fiction. [The Left Hand of Darkness] is a love story, but the sexuality is evaded. ... Although it seemed awfully hard on the poor guy. But certain distinctions had to be kept just for the sake of the novel for it to say what it was saying. If it had become a sexual encounter, that would have blurred a whole lot of the things that I wanted to talk about all through the book. And it just wouldn't have worked. It would have given the story a sort of false climax [laughs]. Premature.

Tehanu is subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea." We thought, "O.K., she's tired of Earthsea, she doesn't want to go back there."

Le Guin: Honestly, I put that on because I knew once I put out a fourth one people would say, "Oh, well, you're going on, and this is going to be a whole series, isn't it," and I truly believed that I'd finished the story. But I certainly haven't. There's a fifth and a sixth book coming out. Harcourt will put out Tales from Earthsea in May 2001. The Other Wind will come next fall. Tales from Earthsea is five rather long stories. Part of it goes back in the history of Earthsea, and part of it goes on from the end of Tehanu. ... When I finished Tehanu, I thought I had finished the story of Tenar and Ged and got them settled. But of course I had opened up this whole other can of worms with the little girl, Tehanu. I mean, who is she? What is she? And that's essentially what I have to follow in these next two books -- to find out who Tehanu is and what her job is.

What kinds of SF or fantasy stories spark your readers' imaginations?

Le Guin: The fan mail from the fantasy tends to be nice letters from all kinds of people just appreciating the books. It's very touching. With the science fiction, often they want to either appreciate an argument of mine, or argue with me. It's more intellectual. And they're much harder to answer. Science fiction readers are so sharp, and they know how to read science fiction. The most embarrassing one was this nice, kind of plaintive letter I got from a guy who said, in Four Ways to Forgiveness, Werrell seems so different from Werrell -- this planet in Planet of Exile. And at that time, and not until then, I thought, "Oh my God, I used the same name for two different stories!" [laughs] He had laboriously worked out a sort of history for this planet -- and I just told him, "No, they're different planets, I'm a dope!"

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