The Disconnected: About Ursula Le Guin

Table of Contents

George Orwell (what the hell is going on here—starting an essay on Ursula Le Guin by talking about George Orwell?) once laid out his main motives for becoming a writer:

  1. Sheer egotism…

  2. Esthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement…

  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.1

If his talent had been allowed to develop undisturbed, he said, “the first three motives would outweigh the fourth”—which he called “political purpose.” But this, of course, is not the George Orwell we know. Instead, he admits, “I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.” He then goes on to describe his experiences with imperialism, debasing poverty, and most of all the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War in which fascism triumphed and the self-proclaimed leaders of the working class turned against the interests of that class.

I can understand what happened to Orwell, because I lived through another time of social upheaval, the 1960s, and know the profundity and power of its indelible impact on people. Le Guin cannot be called a child of the 60s, since she was 31 when the decade began, but the era clearly had an effect on her writing, notably on the book I drew on most heavily for my parody, The Dispossessed. In an interview, Le Guin echoes Orwell’s lament: “I wish I wasn’t so moralistic, because my interest is aesthetic. What I want to do is make something beautiful like a good pot or a good piece of music, and the ideas and moralism keep getting in the way.”2

The Dispossessed is perhaps her best known work, surpassed only by The Left Hand of Darkness in critical acclaim. But these two books do not convey the full extent and depth of her thinking. In particular, they leave one with the impression of the writer principally as a critic of political and social oppression. She certainly is such a critic—a quite inspired analyst of the deliberate and unforeseen techniques for putting people in boxes and keeping them there—but that’s not what drives her. Her more resonant theme is a spiritual, almost mystical quest, of which political activism is only a manifestation particularly appropriate to the late 1960s and early 1970s. The mystical theme is successfully secularized, and therefore appears only through hints, in The Dispossessed. It is slightly more explicit in The Left Hand of Darkness (from which I have taken a mythical religious figure, Meshe, and placed him in my story as Mushe). In The Disconnected, I have tried to imitate the kind of balancing act Le Guin does so well, to explore the needs of the soul as well as the stomach.

An odyssey through the lesser-known works of Le Guin reveals a transcendent visionary whose anthropological family background seems to empower a natural urge to combine the many elements of physical and mental life into one. More and more as Le Guin’s career progresses—although her later concerns are clearly laid out in some important early stories—her writing appears less like science fiction or fantasy, and more like a bizarre externalization of an internal state of mind. (The accepted term for her type of writing nowadays is “speculative fiction,” which allows it to break out of confining categories.) Correspondingly, her language becomes more and more a way to pull the ground out from under the reader’s feet, and less a way of explaining a situation or furthering a comprehensible plot.

There is, for Le Guin, no distinction between the political, the social, the cultural, and the geographical. The way one builds a house or eats one’s food is intimately tied in with the deepest and most pervasive policies of one’s society. If I chose one word to describe Le Guin’s activity, it would be to “connect.” Le Guin herself chose the term “marriage” as the “central, constant theme of my work” in her 1978 introduction to a new edition of Planet of Exile. But to fit better the Pudkrev state of mind, I have made “connect” the most important of the keywords I scatter through my story The Disconnected, along with “call,” “light,” “darkness,” “face,” “diffuse,” “focus,” “bound,” etc.

Antecedents (or, Why another story about a future obsessed with information technology?)

People will tell me that my future has too much of a past; that the prediction of an all-encompassing cyberspace has already been covered in Neuromancer, the novel for which William Gibson invented the term. As well as a huge number of other, very innovative cyberpunk works, which I believe were on Le Guin’s mind in her introduction to her 1994 book “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” when she referred to “sleaze-metal-punk-virtual-noir Capitalist Realism.”

If I wished to imagine a technology hundreds of years advanced beyond us, why didn’t I describe dozens of artificial devices sprouting from people’s limbs and controlled by brain waves? Or human bodies pervaded completely by information control through the alteration of biology? Such trends are perfectly possible, but the resulting monstrous creatures would completely alienate a 20th-century audience. My goal is to make my peers reflect on their own lives, and therefore to present a human environment with which they can identify.

During the first few paragraphs of The Disconnected you may think you are reading just another cyberpunk story. But by the time you are traversing the cobblestoned streets of the Dalshamen Quarter and Iglene is dancing, you know the story is something unmistakably different. Stones and dancing are important to Le Guin, who portrays living, stable societies where cyberpunk shows societies that have disintegrated. Le Guin celebrates the importance of the individual instead of jeering at it, and considers human history a scaffold to support life instead of just a set of prison bars. I suppose that’s why I have spent a happy year intensively reading all of Le Guin’s fiction, feeling my soul enlarge and deepen with every book, whereas cyberpunk classics just leave me in a desolate funk (as they are meant to; I fear they do this because they are an accurate portrayal of where the world is going).

More relevant to my project is Le Guin’s own writing about cyberspace. In her most audacious and far-reaching fictional work, Always Coming Home, she delivers a judgement that fits perfectly with The Disconnected. The chapter “Pandora Converses with the Archivist of the Library of the Madrone Lodge at Wakwaha-na” criticizes our current information architecture as follows:

Who controls the storage and the retrieval? To what extent is the material there for anyone who wants and needs it, and to what extent is it “there” only for those who have the information that is it there, the education to obtain that information, and the power to get that education? How many people in your society are literate? How many are computer-competent? How many of them have the competence to use libraries and electronic information storage systems? How much real information is available to ordinary, nongovernment, nonmilitary, nonspecialist, nonrich people? What does “classified” mean? What do shredders shred? What does money buy? In a State, even a democracy, where power is hierarchic, how can you prevent the storage of information from becoming yet another source of power to the powerful—another piston in the great machine?

Anyone who wants to investigate this analysis more deeply should get the book Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age, by William C. Wresch, Rutgers University Press, 1996, ISBN 0813523702. I discovered this book after I chose the title of my own story, but appropriately enough the author was a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility when he wrote the book, as I was when I wrote my story. Wresch’s analysis parallels all the points made by Le Guin in the quote just shown; he covers not only electronic and digital media, but also such traditional sources of information as educational facilities and informal person-to-person networks. He shows not only that information is hard for many to get, but that even those of use who are highly wired may be getting lots of information we don’t need while lacking information that would make our lives better.

Toward the just society and beyond

The Dispossessed concerns two flawed worlds and how its main character overcomes the walls in each one. While the conditions of life in the two societies limit the themes Le Guin could present, the book’s critique transcends itself.

The place of The Dispossessed in Le Guin’s works

The Dispossessed works simultaneously as an anchor for a series and a startling departure from it. In Le Guin’s canon, this 1974 novel is the last major work of the Hainish series, but describes a period at the earliest historical point in that series, before all the other stories take place. Le Guin based her Hainish works on the improbable principle (not of interest to me, and therefore not used for my story) that humanity did not evolve on Earth, but was planted here and on several dozen other planets a million or so years ago by the original humans on a planet called Hain. Hain, the mother-planet, is of course the inspiration for the planet Hohm in my story.

In inventing Urras, the dominant planet in The Dispossessed, Le Guin introduced a key innovation. Instead of being eerily different from Earth, like the other planets in the series, Urras is all too familiar. One can instantly recognize U.S. culture and politics in the country visited by Shevek. Significantly, Le Guin does not invent flora and fauna for Urras as she does for her other worlds; she refers to familiar parts of our environment like horses, rats, and measles. The goal clearly is to force us to accept the planet Urras and the country A-IO as a model of our own lives. The joke, of course, is that the planet is seen from an outsider, to whom it is almost as fantastic as the planets Le Guin presents in other novels.

The Dispossessed also stands out among all Le Guin’s novels by being free from mumbo-jumbo. In The Dispossessed, nobody mindspeaks or sees visions of people long dead. Nobody waves a wand to quiet the wind or dispel the rain. Nobody crosses a stream or rock wall into a netherworld. Nobody foretells the future. There isn’t even any religion, other than a few casual mentions of observances and beliefs on Urras. The lack of magicality is crucial to the book’s depiction of Shevek’s society, because people there are mentally limited by simple reality. Had they possessed mindspeech or spirituality, it would have opened them up to the importance of the individual, and Shevek would not encounter the barriers shown in the novel.

Varieties of oppression

Urran oppression is familiar. The affluent learn how to follow the rules while the poor are shot down by machine gun fire when they break the rules. Shevek is surprised at first to find that he can say whatever he wishes, but he soon sees that he can’t get a forum for his views among anyone worth talking to. Neatly segregated by the class structure of the education system and commercial control of the media, he finds that even the people he does talk to put up walls against his views: the fear of losing their class privileges. My Pudkrev society is actually more open than Urras. Censorship would be too easy a way to achieve conformity and would make for a tiresome tale. So I have adopted the arguable premise that the Net does not allow censorship. In Pudkrevi, everybody—even the Dalshamen opposition—can say anything they want, anywhere and any time. (The block on Pudkrevi-Dalshamen romance is a limited inconvenience, and clearly an ineffective one.)

On Shevek’s home planet, Anarrans suffer no external oppression, so they are free to struggle with an internal oppression. This oppression consists of placidly going along with tradition, and a fear of standing out as special or of incurring jealousy from others. One of the fascinating ambiguities in this “ambiguous utopia” (from the subtitle of the novel) is the question of whether force is a credible means of repression there. Shevek and his friends tend to dismiss the possibility of being met by violence, yet at the very beginning of the novel a crowd of his critics kills a guard.

As an anarchist society in conformance to the ideals of the early French socialists, Anarres is a pretty nifty place. Everybody gets all the food, clothing, and basic necessities he or she needs, except in cases of uncontrollable natural disaster. Furthermore, their society tolerates a wide range of social attitudes, artistic expressions, and sexual practices. For most Anarrans, everything is fine and dandy. Yet if all these blessings were enough, there would be no story. Le Guin obviously expects more from her beloved Anarres than freedom from want and oppression. She wants it to promote the highest human mental achievements. Shevek’s quest is clearly presented as not just an intellectual search for a scientific theory, nor even as just a new philosophy, but as a complete union of body, mind, spirit, and social participant in apprehending the unity of the cosmos. It’s like Abraham Maslow’s self-actualization carried to all conscious beings scattered on all planets across the universe. The ultimate validation of, and justification for, the Anarran experiment is that it produced a magnificent creation—as ambivalent and confused as the Anarrans were about this creation—that Urras could not: Shevek.

While my Pudkrev is a stratified society more reminiscent of Urras than Anarres, it has a few traits in common with the latter “utopia.” Like Anarres, Pudkrev possesses no overt center of control; only a system of voluntary coordination and an ambiance that emphasizes conformity.

Le Guin expends a lot of time describing her invented worlds’ governments, social mores, and hierarchies. Pudkrev made this task easy for me: it has no organized government, a rough-and-ready kind of interpersonal interaction that excludes mores, and an extremely flat social hierarchy (leaving aside the obvious exploitation of racial minorities). But still there were some subtleties that I hoped were successfully conveyed.

The government of Pudkrev is embodied not in legal codes but in what law professor Lawrence Lessig calls the “code” of computer hardware and software. (He has just released a book on this topic called Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Basic Books, October 1999, ISBN 046503912X.) The embodiment of code in computer systems does not mean (as many Pudkrevi believe, and as proponents of the market in our society believe) that the code is objectively rational. Decisions are made by people, as they always are, and represent the interests of particular classes. But decisions appear in networking protocols and computer algorithms rather than in laws and regulatory bodies.

Many people do not know where to attack a power that is so “diffuse,” to use a keyword from the story. More and more often, the oppressor in our world arrives wearing not jackboots or army fatigues, but Indonesian-manufactured sneakers and Phillipine-sewn designer clothes. We cry out for vengeance when we see pictures of refugees driven from their homes by marauding soldiers, but we rarely see the people driven from their homes by high rents. People look for a demon to grab hold of, but the economy moves too fast for them, so they look for easy targets and make Bill Gates an anti-Christ.

In this context, I found the recent protests in Seattle encouraging. (Although I must go on record as opposing the attempts to shut down the World Trade Organization conference. Sitting in front of the doors, while it’s a grand gesture in the Ghandi/King tradition, simply means here that intergovernmental organizations will choose more repressive countries for their meetings in the future, should they get past their internal differences.)

The protests were a good sign because they show that a wider public is beginning to understand the relationship between economic policy and human rights. An enlightening debate among various liberals can be found in the December 6, 1999 issue of The Nation (which was published before the conference). Capitalism will never “feed the needy, the orphan, and the prisoner” even if a few bureaucrats from different countries sign a paper telling it to, but locating the source of the problem is a good start.

The hero and the suffocatingly benign

Shevek, the hero of The Dispossessed, is the most impressive specimen of conscious, directed humanity in Le Guin’s works, and I took as much of him as I could to produce my Shovit. Along with Shevek came his friend Bedap. Somehow, the relationship between Shevek and Bedap struck me as more significant that the one between Shevek and his wife Takver. It was Takver who searched Shevek out; she knows what she wants, while he seems just to react. By contrast, Shevek returns deliberately, over and over, to find Bedap and renew their friendship. Takver’s bond to Shevek is touching, but she repeatedly lets him go for greater causes. So it is Bedap who finds his counterpart in my story. I also stole Shevek’s daughter Sadik from him and gave her to Resst as the little girl Sod.

Like characters in many of Le Guin’s stories—and like Iglene and Lenz when I put them in the forest—Shevek cannot accomplish his life’s goal until he leaves home and returns again. His home world is nurturing but suffocating. He learns there the best that there is to know about human life, and he responds with joy to the all-enveloping love and cooperative spirit. But the envelope becomes too tight for him. Only when he is transported into the danger of Urras is his mind freed enough to make its great contribution to humanity, his unified theory of physics.

My character Shovit goes through a moral crisis when fighting the war on the planet Yoowi—whose name comes from the planet Yeowe, where a slave rebellion is carried out in Le Guin’s book Four Ways to Foregiveness—during the period before the narrative of my story. Thereafter, Shovit does not have to undergo emotional upheavals like Iglene and Lenz; nor does he get grossly out of sync with the situation around him like Bidup; that is because he is constantly facing the challenges of life and redefining himself to cope with them.

From what does social change arise?

It’s significant that The Dispossessed ends with no revolution, no redemption, no greater understanding between peoples except for a single visitor from another solar system (Hain) who comes to visit Anarres. Stories written by Le Guin almost twenty years later (“A Man of the People” from Four Ways to Foregiveness, and “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” from the book of that name) suggest that Hain and other planets have also reached utopia. But that utopia is not much like Anarres; it consists of communal agrarian communities. This notion of Le Guin’s was most fully worked out in her incomparably subtle exploration of human thought and relationships, Always Coming Home. The utopia is not what most of us are looking forward to. To reach it, we have to give up the desire to dominate humans, which means accepting that all must work hard and accept some level of physical discomfort. We must also give up the desire to dominate nature, accepting the risk of disease and occasional hunger.

Revolutions do not seem to be all they were cracked up to be in Le Guin novels. The first three novels revolve around the defeat of an alien enemy, but there is no radical change in societies except for a significant union of two species in Planet of Exile. As the Le Guin canon grows, such happy endings became sparser and sparser. Good societies arise in them not from apocalyptic or enraptured political upheavals, but from the gradual evolution of the species. Ged is the only character in a Le Guin novel who succeeds in a major amelioration of the society and culture he inherits (by destroying the Nameless Ones in The Tombs of Atuan and by bringing a new king and a kind of Messianic age in The Farthest Shore).

Toward the end of my story Shovit learns, as his namesake Shevek did, his most difficult lesson: that he cannot singlehandedly force a thoroughgoing social change. He must be content with what one man can do. When I started The Disconnected I wanted to end it with a truly multi-ethnic proletarian revolution. As the writing went on and as I absorbed more Le Guin tales, I could not achieve that goal. The mental evolution of the society I had designed permitted nothing better than the grudging cooperation with which I ended. Rest assured I feel guilty about this—think of all those millions of people to whom I could granted utopia, but instead left with an uneasy truce!—but anything more optimistic would have been a lie, and good artists cannot lie merely for the sake of happiness.

Surprisingly, the kind of social movement portrayed sympathetically in Le Guin’s books seems to be taking place right now in China through the hard-to-categorize Falun Gong (Wheel of Law) or Falun Dafa movement. Not a political party, not a religion, not a hierarchical organization (although quite effective at bringing people together in demonstrations) it is clearly rooted in traditional Buddhism and Taoism with a distinct conservative tinge—hence its familiar appeal to those who practice it—and, outside of a few bizarre references to supernatural powers, seems devoted simply to peace and healthy, balanced living. Yet its very existence is proving to be the largest threat faced by the Chinese regime in the decade since the mass Tiananmen Square protest—or perhaps even longer; a law passed by the government against the group on October 30, 1999 called them a threat that in some ways is “unprecedented in the 50-year history of the People’s Republic.”

Africa is where the modern nation state inherited from the likes of Louis XIV, Alexander Hamilton, and Bismarck is most disfunctional. The breakdown of governments leads to horrors on a scale beyond human capacity to grasp (deaths in Central African conflicts are routinely counted in increments of 100,000) but we must remember that even worse massacres took place when the European governments were in control; our response to chaos must not be a nostalgia for oppressive strictures. In Somalia, the only inhabited place in the world that lacks any group making even a weak claim to represent a government, two stark alternatives to traditional control arise. (No, I’m not talking about Internet access—although they actually have it!) On the one hand, the predictable gangs and local strongmen try to exploit the population and threaten more wretchedness; if Somalia had a lot of resources to interest the outside world that trend would accelerate. But in a brief breathing-space left by the collapse of government in some areas, particularly the North, communities have resorted to traditional structures with local respected figures adjucating disputes. Living standards in those areas are not particularly low compared to other rural areas of Africa. Social policies are probably not as liberal as we would like, but the precarious achievement shows that local community cohesion is a possibility.

Living with race

One of the most interesting investigations in literature and psychology alike is how people adjust their assumptions and views to the worlds around them—in other words, how we all deceive ourselves. In The Disconnected, I have tried to isolate and clinically study various types of reaction to racism, among both the oppressor and the oppressed. The only common thread for racism is its persistence. Just to take one example from my own community, on the same week I finished my story, a report from Northeastern University was released with the finding, “Nearly half the white Bostonians surveyed said blacks and Hispanics are less intelligent than whites, and blacks are harder to get along with than other ethnic groups.” (Boston Globe, October 2, 1999, p. B1.) Do you think this could have no effect on hiring, school performance, housing opportunities, health services, and encounters with the law?

How the oppressed adapt

Neither the oppressor nor the oppressed can consciously control their psychological defenses, so the reactions open to both in the face of racism are constrained; but those of the oppressed are more so. Ankarren, the prosperous woman who lost all that she achieved, and Upget, the small boy who was never given the chance to achieve anything, represent opposite poles of adaptation.

Ankarren is based on the silk dyer Akaren who lost her magic powers because of a hidden evil force in the world in The Farthest Shore (part of the Earthsea Trilogy). My character is disturbing not just because of her material losses but because of the bottomless self-abandonment with which she reacts. Upget is based on Ukwet, a hot-headed and ignorant youth in Le Guin’s early novel Planet of Exile. The survival of Ukwet’s community in this novel depends on it’s making an alliance with another race, but Ukwet’s intolerance and inflexibility scotch the possibility of the alliance and lead to the genocidal slaughter of his community. In my story, Upget may be even a sadder case than Ankarren, because for him oppression is the sum total of everything he knows in life.

Then we come to Iglene, whose theme is that of control. Iglene is based on Irene Pannis from The Beginning Place. This rather tenuous connection is based simply on the bravery Irene showed in exploring a new territory and in carrying out a difficult quest that saves the town she loves. Irene is angry when she feels she is losing her exclusive right to the dreamland she has found. This small pique has built up into the major control issues I have given my own character Iglene. Instead of using the name of Irene’s brother for the little throw-away reference to Iglene’s brother at the very beginning of my story, I chose to use the name konstant, which comes from the stolid and righteous brother Konstant Fabbre in the short story “Brothers and Sisters” of the collection Orsinian Tales.

Iglene tries first to find satisfaction in the digitized world of total control, like the particular kinds of hackers decried by Joseph Weizenbaum in his classic Computer Power and Human Reason. She quickly turns out to be stronger than that character type, as well as paradoxically weaker. Her disappointing performance in the diffusion forum springs integrally from her oppression.

To back up this assertion, I highly recommend the article by social scientist Claude M. Steele: “Thin Ice: ‘Stereotype Threat’ and Black College Students,” in The Atlantic of August 1999. Steele examined the common anecdotal observation that African-Americans performed worse on academic tests than Caucasians even if their skills and knowledge were considered equally good by people who knew them. He rejected the politically conservative theories for lower academic performance—genetic inferiority, bad culture, sloppy upbringing, even low self-esteem—and ran experiments showing that blacks’ performance was perversely lowered merely by the knowledge that a lower performance would be interpreted by others as racial inferiority. In other words, blacks were conscious at some level that a poor showing would confirm others’ racism, and tried hard to do well, but the expectation weakened their skills rather than strengthening them.

When Iglene throws herself back into social life, she maintains the urge to keep control, by which she distances herself from her vulnerability as an impoverished minority woman. Furthermore, viewing people as instruments allows her simultaneously to suppress her hatred of the Pudkrevi for their oppressiveness and the disdain she feels toward her own people for buckling under.

How the oppressors adapt

Lenz’s main job in my story is to pull Iglene out of her trap. I based the character of Lenz on Luz Falco, from The Eye of the Heron. Luz is a highly privileged person—the daughter of her world’s most powerful leader in a strictly hierarchical society—but holds no joy in the luxuries she has, nor any pride in her social position. (An even more interesting case of a privileged child who struggles with her privileges and ultimately rejects them to find herself is Arha or Tenar, in The Tombs of Atuan.)

From her earliest awareness of social differences in adolescence, Luz is attracted to the People of the Peace, whose philosophy is diametrically opposed to the authoritarians running her society. Soon she becomes a traitor to her class, going physically over to the side of the oppressed People of the Peace and falling in love with their young, idealistic leader Lev (who in my story becomes Liv, a Dalshamen who merits a one-liner during the first meeting of the Racial Freedom Society). Ultimately Luz becomes the leader of the People of the Peace, taking them to a new place where the oppressor cannot reach them.

Few derive pleasure from racism (although such people probably exist) or use it calculatedly to increase their wealth (though this could be the motive of the nameless students who attack Iglene in The Disconnected). More common is the Moketa soldier who suffers from oppression himself and needs his racism for a variety of reasons, which I have not taken the time to delineate but which readers can fill in from their knowledge of life of Earth.

Among the upper classes, we find more avoidance than active engagement. Resst believes she has overcome racism and therefore can profit from it guilt-free. An awareness of this kind of oppression was stated by a man working against domestic violence: "I have a more privileged position of power over women whenever some violent offender puts a woman in her place."

Resst, by the way, is based on Ress, a minor character in a minor book by Le Guin. The novella “A Woman’s Liberation” in Four Ways to Foregiveness introduces Ress as the operator of a boarding-house who is sympathetic to freed slaves and provides a temporary haven for the main character of the story.

Onlyon is a more subtle case, having built a satisfying life that is not without moral and intellectual depth. His value system is stable because he never examines the unjustice on which it rests. This character is based on Ogion, a forceful representation of the Wise Old Man archtype from Le Guin’s fantasy novel The Wizard of Earthsea. Ogion is a masterful guide and a powerful magician, but he does not go out in the world to use his power in a way that makes it better for people. The Wizard of Earthsea chronicles his contributions with complete sympathy, considering even his passivity to be a virtue (this is an expression of Le Guin’s Taoist sense of rightness), but one can’t help noticing that he stays in his cabin and stirs his fire meditatively while his pupil Ged and others go out risking their lives and souls to save the world.

Action and will

It is particularly interesting that Ogion turns up again some twenty years after Le Guin finished the fantasy novels that formed the Earthsea Trilogy, in a work called Tehanu. This work presents a much more ambivalent view of wizardry; it actually rejects the magical manipulation of things that the Earthsea Trilogy celebrated and seems to call for a more sensitive kind of interaction with the world. Ogion appropriately dies near the beginning of Tehanu. Since it denigrates magic as a way to change the world, Tehanu is naturally less powerful as a myth than the Earthsea Trilogy, but philosophically it represents a maturing of Le Guin’s views.

A pause should be taken here to consider the theme of Taoism, which runs explicitly through many Le Guin works. I don’t ascribe much to the critics’ frequent claims that Le Guin prefers inaction over action, an “all things come to he who waits” policy, and other boiled-down Taoism. Decisive action is the hallmark of Le Guin’s heroes and heroins: escapes, journeys, battles fought with a gun, a sword, a magic staff, or purely with the mind. Examples range from Rocannon, the hero of her first novel who travels across half the world to destroy his enemy, to Selver in The Word for World is Forest, whose entire race is like a symbol for Taoist peace but who wipes out two enemy camps, to George Orr of The Lathe of Heaven, who is usually cited as the most Taoist of her heroes or heroins but who can act quickly and precisely at the critical denouement.

A careful rereading of The Lathe of Heaven shows that action and inaction are more complex there then commonly seen. In the standard interpretation, George is blameless in the transformations he effects; he appears to be just a victim of the meddling Haber, who is fully responsible for turning George’s gift in the destructive direction of trying to change the world.

But two-thirds of the way through the novel, George undermines this interpretation by revealing that he had lived another life in a more terrible world and nearly ended in a nuclear disaster, but managed to dream himself out of it into the world we see at the novel’s start. In fact, the novel’s first two pages document the transformation between the nuclear horror and the world that we take as George’s natural one. Thus, George made his first world-transforming dream before he ever met Haber; in fact, his dream creates the world in which he met Haber. Blame turns in on itself. Although George’s dream was justifiable—in that it saved his life, and a good deal of the rest of the world too—one might re-interpret the book to show that his desperate self-saving measure led him into the quandary of discovering that his dreams could be dangerous, and that he could rid himself of his problem only by projecting the destructive element onto Haber and purging it through the activities in the novel.

So inaction is not necessarily a virtue. What’s important is learning to wait until you know what action is necessary and when to act. That is why I have Iglene act, but at times chosen by others rather than herself. In contrast, Bidup acts too fast and moves in the wrong direction, leading to catastrophe.

Some other characters

Just to wrap up loose ends, I will list here the models for characters in my story that I haven’t yet discussed.

Juspar, the “customer service rep from hell,” is taken from Jasper, the haughty and overly cultivated youth who needles Ged in The Wizard of Earthsea.

Besides Iglene, Ankarren, and Liv, the Racial Freedom Society (whose name comes from Four Ways to Foregiveness) boasts of several other named characters. Moovdin is my version of Mogien from Rocannon’s World. Mogien is an aristocrat possessing the stereotypical male virtues of courage, loyalty, and decisiveness.

Soard is based on the fiery and attractive Sorde from Malafrena. The book is an odd one for Le Guin: a historical romance with a little Virginia Woolf to provide atmosphere and a good dose of D.H. Lawrence for sexual excitement—yet the ending is magnificent, unifying everything that was said about striving for freedom, and poignantly leaving an unanswered question on Sorde’s lips.

Lovov is taken from Lyubov, the rescuer and researcher in The Word for World is Forest.

Moanon, the caretaker of the spire in Iglene’s mother’s neighborhood, comes from Manon, the eunuch in The Tombs of Atuan who nurtures Tenar and probably keeps her spirit alive single-handedly.

Kenyet, the unappealing manager of the Diffuser servers, comes from Ken Kenyek of the dominant Shing race in City of Illusions. Ken Kenyek was notable for his technical skill, mental control, and ability to hide his plans.

Obsleet, only briefly mentioned as the head of the Dalshamen Autonomous Government, is my version of Obsle in The Left Hand of Darkness. Obsle is genuinely interested in Genly Ai’s quest but allows him to be taken away to a concentration camp out of fear that Obsle will lose favor with the authorities. While I say little about the Dalshamen Autonomous Government in my story, it is clearly is anything but autonomous. In the Newspeak embodied by its name I have tipped my hat once again to George Orwell, who taught us all a lot about modern society—not to mention speculative fiction.


The words are all that are left
of the soaring flight I took through two worlds.
But do not merely pet the words,
which even displayed at a depth of eight planes or more,
form pools too shallow to support life,
but ride them back
(ignoring please the illogic of that)
across the electrical currents to
where I sat, a long time ago,
and through my eyes into a place deep in my cortex that holds
what I learned, even a longer time ago,
that now I strive to hoist to the surface and unlearn
while handing on in my illogical fashion to you.