LE GUIN [The following was written in January 2024 as an introduction to Le Guin’s Hainish stories to prepare readers for the selected works.]

Ursula K. Le Guin has become near-synonymous with two of her fictional universes: Earthsea, and the Hainish worlds. The latter is an astoundingly rich setting for meditating on the multiplicity of the human experience; Le Guin imagines an alternate cosmological history in which the Hainish, a human-like race of people, once colonized a wide swath of planets across the galaxy, in some cases populating them with genetically-engineered humans as “experiments.” When the advanced civilization on Hain collapsed, each of these planets (including Earth, known in the Hainish stories as “Terra”) eventually forgot about the existence of the Hainish or even of their connection to each other. Millennia later, the Hainish, as the oldest and most mature of the human races, sought to connect these worlds once again under an interplanetary league known as the Ekumen. Many of Le Guin’s Hainish stories and novels cover the Ekumen’s efforts towards intragalactic diplomacy by incorporating new planets under their banner, usually through a protagonist working as an impartial Observer and making first contact with an entirely “alien” human culture and language. What results from Le Guin’s anthropological experiments, as varied and multitudinous as the Hainish’s own, is a stunning breadth of functional fictive societies that illuminate and teach us about our, the readers’, world. 

Many of Le Guin’s Hainish works are as much about storytelling as they are about culture, anthropology, and politics. Certainly, to Le Guin, storytelling is indivisible from them — in fact, the way we tell stories shapes the way we understand the world around us. How we encounter and receive information, she posits, is just as important as the quality of the information itself. In one of her most renowned essays, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Le Guin reimagines the story as a carrier bag, and insists that it matters what we put inside the container, and furthermore, that what goes inside our carrier bags is reflective of our humanity.

I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us. … That is why I like novels: instead of heroes they have people in them.

Le Guin’s words feel particularly timely in this moment, when we are watching in real time a collusion between imperialist states to craft dehumanizing narratives around Palestinians (and other Indigenous populations) in order to justify a genocide. I have often questioned the point of art-making, especially in the seat of imperial power, but now I am convinced that at least part of our duty is cultural resistance. Not just to insist on counter-narratives, but to break the entrenched systems of narrative production entirely. What is the transformative power of a story — not just as an empathy simulator, as imagined by liberals, but as a blueprint for the future, a challenge to the status quo, a catalyst for real world action? These aims are what Le Guin achieves best in her work — she teaches you how to see, think, and question. Best of all, she shows you how to imagine

Together, we will be reading two short stories that belong to Le Guin’s Hainish universe, “The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganam,” which exemplify some of Le Guin’s goals with her particular style of storytelling. (I think her books are better encapsulations of what I described above — in her own words, she likes novels — but Justin did not allow me to assign everyone three novels.) These two stories explore a specific moment in time in the Hainish universe, one of immense technological shift. Prior to the timeline of these stories, the method of traveling long distances across space was called NAFAL — Nearly As Fast As Lightspeed — which invoked the phenomenon of time dilation. Subjects on a ship traveling at NAFAL would be experiencing time at a slower rate than stationary subjects on a planet or space station. Therefore, expeditions were often considered a semi-permanent post, as decades or centuries could pass on the ground during one’s months- or yearslong NAFAL flight. Shevek, The Dispossessed’s anarchist physicist, introduced the Ekumen to the ansible, a device that can transmit communications across space instantaneously, without the same kind of time lag that plagues NAFAL. Here, in “The Shobies’ Story” and “Dancing to Ganam,” technology has progressed far enough along for ambitious researchers to test out the churten — Le Guin’s word for teleportation, or instantaneous travel. 

As you read these stories, take note of how the influx of information that you, the reader, are receiving changes your very experience of reading. How do we perceive and understand events that are happening in the story, how do we know we are truly understanding something? How does the very structure of the story impact our grasp of what is happening? What were your impressions of the stories and characters at the start of the story, and how do they compare to your impressions at the end? How does Le Guin pose the act of storytelling as an extension of her politics?

Consider these stories from an anthropological perspective as well. What are the cultures and languages being represented? Many of these characters’ home planets are represented at length and in detail in other Le Guin stories or books — but without the benefit of that knowledge and context, how did you approach understanding each of their cultural backgrounds? What could you glean from the information provided? Diegetically, how are each of these characters interpreting and understanding new cultural information? How is understanding being formed and reformed? How does meaning travel across language, and what obstacles might it meet? 

Lastly, I would be remiss to mention the speculative element of Le Guin’s fiction. Why does Le Guin use the vehicle of science/speculative fiction to explore her ideas? What changes if we try to reinterpret some of these narratives as literary realism? Why does science/speculative fiction matter?

Please don’t feel like you have to answer each and every one of these questions, but keep them in your head as you read and as we embark on our discussion. While this is my second time reading these stories, Le Guin’s stories are so rich with ideas and details that I feel like I will be participating in sharing my thoughts on her work on a level playing field with all of you. Excited to amble down this exploratory path together! 

Extra Credit reading (aka the 3 novels):
The Dispossessed
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Telling

Extra Extra Credit Reading:
“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” by Ursula K. Le Guin
“On Not Reading Science Fiction” by Ursula K. Le Guin

© 2024 Heung Coalition.