A Mythology for No One and a Future for Anybody But You
February 9, 2018
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Ursula Le Guin didn’t want to hurt anyone. She just, as reader Michael points out, “an influential writer who created beloved works of fantasy and science fiction; who didn’t like Lovecraft’s work (and possibly the man himself); and was interested in a little representation in her stories.” Is that so wrong…?
Well to be sure, she was dead wrong about Lovecraft. He was a first rate writer who mentored a surprisingly large number of people that would go on to define fantasy, science fiction, and horror for a generation. He wrote pieces that could pass for work written by Lord Dunsany. If anything gave his homage away, it was not his command of the cadence and motifs of the King James bible. It’s the downright disturbing aspects of the payoff that remind the reader of just who it really is that’s penned the work.
Le Guin manages to be disturbing in an entirely different way, and her approach to representation is a central element to that. In her story “Nine Lives” for instance, you wouldn’t really know there was a non-white character in the story. She has to tell you he’s there with an explicit reference to his “Hershey-bar-colored face.” There’s a blandness about her non-white characters… as if their skin color is just painted on. I couldn’t tell you why that is, exactly. It’s self evident that people from different regions and different cultures vary from one another. And as it happens, Lovecraft was expert at conveying just this aspect of rural New England.
Who is she writing for exactly…? I can’t see it. Are there really non-white people out there that are honestly embracing her work, praising her, and thanking her profusely for creating visions of the future and mythologies of the past that include them…? I doubt it. Other nations seem to have a handle on providing that for themselves just fine. At any rate, the Irish aren’t sitting on the hands waiting for a Japanese person to finally tell their story.
And that’s the thing about authors who go ahead and accept their own people and work from that rather than things they know very little about. They provide a way for people in other places and times to encounter something very specific. Something almost alien. Something infused with a nuance that people elsewhere could only guess at.
From what I’ve read of her, Le Guin seems to be in revolt against that very thing. As if her most likely audience deserves neither a past nor a future. As if she herself were a product of a post-cultural society. I really can’t see the appeal of this. Maybe you do. Either way, her work cannot be considered to be part of the same literary canon as that of Lord Dunsany and H. P. Lovecraft.