Table of Contents
2.1 Utopian Fiction and Science Fiction
2.2 Le Guin's Hainish Cycle
3 Analysis: Le Guin's ansible
5 Works Cited
In 1979, Barry N. Malzberg remarks about Ursula K. Le Guin that “she is, as the date of this essay, the most important contemporary writer of science fiction, and this field cannot be understood ifshe is not” (9). Indeed, Le Guin takes an exceptional position among writers of science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. First, Le Guin can be recognized as a highly active writer during that period of time, as ten texts from her Hain- ish Cycle were published between 1966 and 19741. Among these texts are prize-winning novels like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974), which were both winners of the Hugo Award and the Nebula award and thus made her “not only the first woman to receive the Hugo and Nebula for the year's best novel, but the only writer to receive both awards twice for the best novel” (De Bolt, 22). Second, Le Guin also is a crucial person in the development of science fiction as a genre. Her novel The Dispossessed bears the subheading An Ambiguous Utopia. With this novel Le Guin reunites two genres which have “many close and evident connections^] [...] [but also] exceptionally complex [interrelations]” (Williams, 52). These two genres are utopian fiction and science fiction. In The Dispossessed Le Guin also laid the technological foundation for her whole Hainish universe: She led her main character Shevek to the invention of the ansible, a means of immediate interstellar communication. My thesis is that this technological invention, the ansible, is the crucial, but ambivalent element which makes Lu Guin's work science fiction and utopian fiction at the same time and moreover bears utopian as well as dystopian characteristics.
In order to prove my thesis, I will first state and explain definitions of utopian fiction and science fiction. Secondly, I will give a short overview on Le Guin's biography and the works in her Hainish Cycle. Furthermore, I will analyze five novels from this cycle on the importance of the ansible. These works are Rocannon's World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Word for World is Forrest (1972) and The Dispossessed (1974).
2.1 Utopian Fiction and Science Fiction
The concept of utopia has a long philosophical and political tradition. In literary terms, this concept can be traced back to Thomas More who coined the word utopia in 1516. The neologism 'utopia' names his book as well as the island on which his 'utopi- an' society lives. Thus the term is also used to “refer to a particular kind of narrative, which became known as utopian literature [...] [and] was a new literary form [in More's days], and its novelty certainly justified the need for a neologism” (Vieira, 4). In short, the neologism utopia is a combination of different Greek words and signifies both 'the good place' (eutopos) and 'the non-place' (utopus) (Vieira). Fátima Vieira lists four crucial characteristics which define the concept of utopia:
(1) the content of the imagined society (i.e., the identification of that society with the idea of 'good place' [...]); (2) the literary form into which the utopian imagination has been crystallized [...]; (3) the function of utopia (i.e., the impact that it causes on its reader, urging him to take action [...]); (4) the desire for a better life, caused by a feeling of discontentment towards the society one lives in [...]. (6)
Thus, utopian fiction portraits a society which is “organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author's community” (Fitting, 135). The literary tradition which follows More's Utopia relies on a more or less rigid narrative structure: it normally pictures thejourney [...] of a man ora woman to an unknown place [...]; once there, the utopian traveller is usually offered a guided tour of the society, and given an explanation of its social, political, economic and religious organization; this journey typically implies the return of the utopian traveller to his or her own country, in order to be able to take back the message that there are alternative and better ways of organizing society.
This narrative structure can be found in most of utopian literature just as well as in dystopian literature. Dystopia on the contrary signifies 'the bad place', “the idea of utopia gone wrong” (Vieira, 16) and rejects the idea of social, moral and political progress and perfection.
In contrast, the genre of science fiction turns out to be harder to define than utopian fiction, as there is no definition which is accepted at large. Science fiction emerged in the 19th century, when Mary Shelly published Frankenstein (1818). The term science fiction itself was first used by Hugo Gernsback in Amazing Stories: The Magazine of Scientifiction, which he launched in 1926 (Fitting). According to Darko Suvin, science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement” (Fitting, 135). Science fiction's core element is a central technological novum which distinguishes its stories from the reader's daily life. But Suvin even goes as far as to classify utopia as a subgenre of science fiction. Indeed, utopian literature and science fiction have several characteristics in common. Both deal with hopes and fears about the future and share a general awareness that scientific and technologic inventions influence human society (Fitting). Travel is also a main motif in science fiction; technologies make it possible to travel through time and space. But nevertheless “there is no necessary connection between utopia and science fiction, and in recent years the two have drifted apart” (Fitting, 149).
Already in 1979, Raymond Williams states that “science fiction has moved beyond the utopian” (63). The main difference between the two genres can be seen in their ability to criticize. Whereas utopian literature opposes the dominant culture, science fiction rarely implies critique, but rather expresses the actual state of our own present (Fitting). As Williams puts it, to live otherwise, commonly, is to be other and elsewhere; a desire displaced by alienation and in this sense cousin to phases of the utopian but without the specific of a connected or potentially connecting transformation and then again without the ties ofa known condition and form. (63)
Thus, transformation in an utopian sense takes place on the social and moral level and shows a better kind of society; transformation in the sense of science fiction is a natural one, “a new life, a new species, a new nature” (Williams, 63).
2.2 Le Guin's Hainish Cycle
Ursula K. Le Guin was born on the 21st of October 1929 as the youngest of four children of the academics Theodora and Alfred Kroeber. Her father, a celebrated anthropologist, and her mother, a psychologist also working in anthropology, can be seen as a main influence on Le Guin's understanding of the individual and its society. In her novels, Le Guin has an anthropologic focus on alien societies. “The basic statement of the anthropologist is that the individual is essentially helpless, forced to enact in varying degrees the folkways and mores of his culture; the message of Le Guin is that culture predominates” (Malzberg, 6-7). In consequence, this means that the individual's acts are responses to the culture he or she grew up in. So, the individual can no longer be held fully responsible for his or her own actions. Thus, “the connection between individual and culture [...] [becomes] seamless” (Malzberg, 7). Another influence on her work can be found in Issac Asimov. While “Asimov's concern is teleology; Kroeber's [is] etiology: the former extrapolates and projects into the future, [...] the latter delves into the past, exploring for roots and origins” (Bittner, 86). These two poles, past, cause, and source versus future, effect, and consequence, are part of Le Guin's work, as she has invented in her Hainish Cycle “a science fictional future history in which those two myths - the etiological creation myth, and the teleological utopian myth are married” (Bittner, 87).
Le Guin's Hainish Cycle includes seven novels and several short stories, which were published between 1966 and 2000 (Le Guin, 2012). Douglas Barbour shortly summarizes these as following:
[The stories] are all set in what may be called the Hainish universe, for it was the people of the planet Hain who originally 'seeded' all the habitable worlds of this part of the galaxy and thus produced a humanoid universe that is single, expanding, and historically continuous, but at the same time marvelous in its variety, for each planetary environment caused specific local mutations in its humanoids as they adapted and developed. The result is a universe full of 'humans' who display enough variety to provide for any number of alien encounters, and since any possible stage of civilization can be found on some particular planet, new definitions of'civilization' can be made in a narrative rather than a discursive mode.
In this universe, where planets are several lightyears apart and NAFAL (nearly as fast as light) technology makes travel and communication between worlds still costly in terms of time, especially life time, the invention of the ansible, a means of instantaneous interstellar communication, is the basis of the forming of a federation of worlds, the Ekumen. This ansible is “in one way or another the symbolic and ideological center of Le Guin's cosmos” (Jameson, 2005, 98).
3 Analysis: Le Guin's ansible
Shevek, the main character in The Dispossessed (1974), is a physicist working on a theory of temporal physics, the Theory of Simultaneity. He leaves his home planet Anarres to finish his work on Urras, a planet his people left ages ago to establish an anarchistic society. On Urras he gets into a conflict between the two states A-Io, symbol of capitalism, and Thu, symbol of communism. His finished theory would enable engineers to build a device “that will permit communication without any time interval between two points in space” (Le Guin, 2009 356). But when he finally accomplishes the Theory of Simultaneity, he does not know whom to give it to. He is afraid that if he provides A-Io or Thu with the theory, they would threaten other states and worlds. Hence, he decides to approach the Terran ambassador on Urras in order to make his theory available as a public good for every world:
Do you not understand that I want to give this to you -- and to Hain and the other worlds -- and to the countries of Urras? But to you all! So that one of you cannot use it as A-Io wants to do, to get power over the others, to get richer or to win more wars. So that you cannot use the truth for your private profit but only for the common good. (Le Guin, 2009, 359) Ambassador Keng recognizes the possibilities an invention like the ansible could offer to the worlds of the universe:
So I could pick up the -- ansible? -- and [...] find out what's happening at home now, not eleven years ago. And decisions could be made, and agreements reached, and information shared. I could talk to diplomats on Chiffewar, you could talk to physicists on Hain, it wouldn't take ideas a generation to get from world to world Do you know, Shevek, I think your very simple matter might change the lives of all the billions of people in the nine Known Worlds? [...] It would make a league of worlds possible. Afederation. We have been held apart by the years, the decades between leaving and arriving, between question and response. It's as if you had invented human speech! We can talk - at last we can talk together. (Le Guin, 2009, 358)
Even at this stage when the ansible is not yet actually invented, its ambivalence becomes clear. On the one hand, it could enable communication across the worlds and even the forming of a political union of worlds. On the other hand, there is also the danger of abuse; the ansible could be used against the other powers and against peace.
This dark side becomes evident in Rocannon's World (1966). In this novel, which was the first one of the Hainish Cycle, the ansible is mentioned the first time. Rocannon, the protagonist, is on an ethnological expedition to the planet Formalhaut II when his ship with his crew on board is destroyed. He assumes that the Faradayans committed this attack, as he is a convey of the League of All Worlds, a predecessor of the Ekumen. Faraday is a revolting planet on war with the League of the World. As his ansible is destroyed alongside with his ship, there is no possibility to contact his government. Even if he could do so, it would take eight years to send troops to Formalhaut II or to take Rocannon home. To defend the rather primitive inhabitants of Formalhaut II against the Faradayans, Rocannon decides to look for the Faradayan base and destroy it. In the end, he accomplishes his task with the help of the Faradayan ansible. He contacts a League of the World base and tells them the coordinates of the Faradayan war base. With this information they can destroy the camp and the war ships: “They can send death at once, but life is slower” (Le Guin, 1977, 135). Though Rocannon manages to defend the inhabitants of Formalhaut II and the League of the World against the Faradayan rebellion, he is aware of his own deadly deed through his newly acquired ability of mind speech:
But he could not shut it out [...], the darkness that blinded his mind, the knowledge in his own flesh of the death of a thousand men all in one moment. Death, death, death over and over and yet all at once in one moment in his one body and brain.
(Le Guin, 1977, 133-134)
It is the technology of immediate communication that brings death to a thousand of Faradayans. Simultaneously, the same technology helps to prevent an upcoming war and the associated killing of even more people. To achieve the 'greater good', the death of the Faradayans is weighed up against the death of the League of All Worlds.
The delay of time in communication and travel is an even greater problem in The Word for World is Forest (1972). Terra has used up its own wood resources and sets up the logging colony New Tahiti on Athshe, a planet 27 lightyears away. The forrest is the natural basis for life for the native inhabitants and the rich wildlife on Athshe. But the Terrans do not understand the importance of the forrest and keep cutting down
1 For an overview see Bittner, 91.