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S33 Ep9

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Premiere: 8/2/2019 | 00:02:17 |

Explore the remarkable life and legacy of late feminist author Ursula K. Le Guin whose groundbreaking work, including “The Left Hand of Darkness,” transformed American literature by bringing science fiction into the literary mainstream.



About the Episode

Best known for her science fiction and “Earthsea” fantasy series, celebrated and beloved author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929–2018) wrote 21 novels, 11 volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, 12 children’s books, six volumes of poetry and four of translation during her life. American Masters presents the first documentary film exploring the remarkable life and legacy of the prolific and versatile author: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Produced with Le Guin’s participation over the course of a decade, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin tells the intimate coming-of-age story of the Portland, Oregon, housewife and mother of three who forever transformed American literature by bringing science fiction into the literary mainstream. Through her influential work, Le Guin opened doors for generations of younger writers like Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon and David Mitchell — all of whom appear in the film — to explore fantastic elements in their writing.

The film explores the personal and professional life of the notoriously private author through revealing conversations with Le Guin as well as her family, friends and the generations of renowned writers she influenced. Visually rich, Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin illustrates the dramatic real-world settings that shaped Le Guin’s invented places using lush original animations over her own readings of her work to provide a firsthand experience of her fantastic worlds.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin begins with Le Guin’s early struggle to get published in the overwhelmingly male and realism-dominated climate of the early 1960s. Her first major breakthrough came with the young adult novel “A Wizard of Earthsea,” set in a magical archipelago inhabited by wizards and dragons. Along with groundbreaking novels like “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed,” “Earthsea” crowned Le Guin as the queen of science fiction by the end of the decade. But as a woman and a genre writer, she still faced marginalization that hobbled her career until the last decade of her life, when she won the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award and became the second living author to have their work anthologized by the Library of America.

The film dives into Le Guin’s childhood, steeped in the myths and stories of Native Americans she heard growing up in Berkeley, California, as the daughter of prominent 19th century anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and writer Theodora Kroeber, author of the influential book “Ishi in Two Worlds.” This deep childhood understanding of cultural relativism infused her work with a unique perspective; her otherworldly societies are all in some way reflections of our own.

At the heart of the film is Le Guin’s intimate journey of self-discovery as she comes into her own as a major feminist author. “What I was doing was being a woman pretending to think like a man,” she says, reflecting on why her early novels put men at the center of the action. But as second-wave feminism crashed into the science fiction world in the 1970s, Le Guin recognized her own internalized notions about heroism and power. Initially defensive, she found truth in the criticisms of her work. When revisiting the realm of “Earthsea,” she turned her gaze to its women, instead of powerful male wizards. The result was a transformation that echoed throughout the rest of her oeuvre. By embracing her own identity and learning to write as a woman, she eventually rose to the height of her literary power. Working across many genres, Le Guin received numerous honors, including the National Book Award, Hugo Award, Nebula Award, PEN-Malamud, and she was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin had its world premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival and has shown internationally at dozens of festivals, garnering numerous awards.

"It was important to think about privilege and power and domination in terms of gender. Which was something that fantasy had not done."

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin is a production of Arwen Curry in association with the Center for Independent Documentary and THIRTEEN’s American Masters for WNET. The film is directed by Arwen Curry, who is also a co-producer with Jason Andrew Cohn and Camille Servan-Schreiber. Michael Kantor is American Masters series executive producer.

About American Masters
Launched in 1986 on PBS, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 14 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards, and many other honors. To further explore the lives and works of masters past and present, American Masters offers streaming video of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the podcast American Masters: Creative Spark, educational resources, digital original series and more. The series is a production of The WNET Group.

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About The WNET Group
The WNET Group creates inspiring media content and meaningful experiences for diverse audiences nationwide. It is the community-supported home of New York’s THIRTEEN – America’s flagship PBS station – WLIW21, THIRTEEN PBSKids, WLIW World and Create; NJ PBS, New Jersey’s statewide public television network; Long Island’s only NPR station WLIW-FM; ALL ARTS, the arts and culture media provider; and newsroom NJ Spotlight News. Through these channels and streaming platforms, The WNET Group brings arts, culture, education, news, documentary, entertainment and DIY programming to more than five million viewers each month. The WNET Group’s award-winning productions include signature PBS series Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend and Amanpour and Company and trusted local news programs MetroFocus and NJ Spotlight News with Briana Vannozzi. Inspiring curiosity and nurturing dreams, The WNET Group’s award-winning Kids’ Media and Education team produces the PBS KIDS series Cyberchase, interactive Mission US history games, and resources for families, teachers and caregivers. A leading nonprofit public media producer for nearly 60 years, The WNET Group presents and distributes content that fosters lifelong learning, including multiplatform initiatives addressing poverty, jobs, economic opportunity, social justice, understanding and the environment. Through Passport, station members can stream new and archival programming anytime, anywhere. The WNET Group represents the best in public media. Join us.


Major support for Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin is provided, in part, by the National Endowment for the Humanities, bringing you the stories that define us. Additional support for is provided by: California Humanities, Berkeley Film Foundation, Alex Borstein, Kent Rasmussen & Celia Ramsay, Paul D. Jarman, Mary Kay Kare, and others.

Support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AARP, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judith & Burton Resnick, Seton Melvin Charitable Trust, The Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, Vital Projects Fund, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Koo and Patricia Yuen and public television viewers.


♪♪♪ (soft upbeat music) - [Announcer] Major support for the worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin provided in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bringing you the stories that define us.

[ Siren wailing ] [ Suspenseful music plays ] [ ] [ Warbling ] Being: ♪♪♪ Woman: Aaaaaaaaah!

Le Guin: Fantasy and science fiction, when I began writing, were, particularly in America, strictly genre.

♪♪♪ The magazines were pulp magazines.

It had no respect from the critics.

Gaiman: What Ursula was having to navigate was the societal prejudices against science fiction, against the fantastic, and against children's fiction.

All of these things were marginalized.

Atwood: People would think, 'Ray guns and silly things.'

[ Zapping ] 'This can't be serious.'

[ ] Le Guin: I knew that my work was not second-rate; that it was of literary value.

I'd like us not to be resigned, but to be rebellious.

I want to see science fiction step over the old walls and head right into the next wall and start to break it down, too.

Imaginative fiction trained people to be aware that there are other ways to do things and other ways to be, that there is not just one civilization and it is good and it is the way we have to be.

♪♪♪ I think it trains the imagination.

♪♪♪ Charles: Okay. We're almost there.

Le Guin: I see.

[ Turn signal clicking ] Charles: Now, you're going in the back door?

Le Guin: Yeah. Right.

[ Turn signal clicking ] [ Applause ] Thank you, Powell's. Dear Powell's.

[ Laughter ] It's so nice always to come back here.

There are an awful lot of books about writing here and they tend to be very full of rules, 'Do this. Don't do that.'

I don't talk about rules because I have come to believe that every story must make its own rules and obey them.

[ Mid-tempo tune plays ] Kroeber: Ursula, she was going to be a writer.

I mean, that's what she needed to do.

That was what life was for her.

[ Birds chirping ] [ Bicycle bell ringing ] We started at Radcliffe in the fall of 1947.

Ursula had a kind of earthy manner of speech, which was not so common in that environment.

She could also be a little frightening because it was this very sharp, keen mind and very strong feelings about what she cared about.

Le Guin: People always say, 'When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?'

and I never wanted to be a writer.

I just wrote.

It's what I did.

It's the way my being was.

♪♪♪ Kroeber: She didn't see herself as a science fiction writer.

She wanted to write imaginatively about what [laughing] interested her.

Phillips: She worked on the literary magazine for a little while, at Radcliffe, but they wouldn't publish any of her stuff.

The important writers of the moment were very macho, very masculine.

It was all realism.

It was all-male and she went looking for a space that she could make her own.

♪♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] [ Guitar strums mellow tune ] [ Child laughing ] I think the first couple years in Portland, it was just -- You know how it is when you have little kids.

You really don't do much of anything else, except the kids, but she managed to work all the time.

Downes-Le Guin: My mother was very disciplined about her writing schedule, so she would help us get out of the house in the morning, then write in the morning, then do housework in the afternoon.

Elisabeth: She had her study and she would go in there and shut the door.

Charles: They knew now to bother Mama when she was working.

♪♪♪ I knew not to bother her when she was workin', too.

[ Laughing ] ♪♪♪ Le Guin: Charles would read it and maybe my mother would read it.

Then I'd send it to the editor and then the editor would reject it.

I don't know how many times I was told I write well, 'But, we don't know quite what you're doing.'

♪♪♪ I was beginning to feel a little desperate: 'What am I doing? Am I kidding myself?'

♪♪♪ I did keep methodically sending them out.

One of them got accepted by a pulp science fiction magazine and they paid $30.

Back then, that was really important to us.

We were just gettin' by.

♪♪♪ It definitely encouraged me to look more seriously at fantasy and science fiction as the definition of the kind of thing I was writing, which was never really mainstream realism.

There was always something a little off-key about it.

♪♪♪ Phillips: The more they sold, the more she wrote.

She was kind of experimenting with interplanetary travel and world-building.

She turned out to be an excellent world-builder.

♪♪♪ Delany: My editor, Don Wollheim, at Ace Books, was also the first person to publish Ursula's science fiction.

Around 1965 or '66, I had come into the office at Ace Books and Don said, 'Oh, we're publishing a new writer.

I think she's really very good,' and he handed me 'Rocannon's World,' which was her first novel.

Mitchell: Ursula's early work: It's fertile in detail.

They are written by a young person, with a young person's vivacity and, 'Ah, let's give this a go!

And let's have some flying cats and big teeth.'

♪♪♪ Newitz: These early novels do have that flavor of kind of just action-adventure in space.

She wasn't really stepping outside that, quite yet, but you can already see her developing a lot of the themes that she becomes known for later on, where she has these truly alien characters, futures, and alternate worlds.

Mitchell: It's really well-realized stuff and it's better than a lot of writers' bests, but she was on quite a steep, near-vertical trajectory, artistically.

[ Birds squawking ] Le Guin: I had written a couple of short stories that took place on these islands where there were wizards and dragons in 1968, when the publisher Parnassus Books came to me and said, 'Would you write a young adult novel?'

♪♪♪ These islands grew and, boom!

'This is a whole archipelago of islands and, now, I draw the map.'

And I would name the rivers and the mountains and the cities, but I didn't know anything about them 'til I went there with my characters.

♪♪♪ As a boy, our hero was called Sparrowhawk 'cause the wild hawks would come when he called them, but his true, secret, name is Ged.

Ged sails to Roke Island, the isle of the wise, hidden in the heart of the archipelago.

From all over Earthsea, young men come to Roke to learn the art of magic, the craft of wizardry.

♪♪♪ This was not, at that time, a well-known concept, the idea of a wizard school.

[ Wind blowing ] Gaiman: I don't think Harry Potter could have existed without 'Earthsea' having existed.

That was the original, the finest, and the best.

[ Wind whipping ] Le Guin: 'In winter...he was sent... across Roke Island to the farthest north-most cape, where stands the Isolate Tower.

There by himself lived the Master Namer... Kurremkarmerruk sat on a high seat, writing down lists of names that must be learned before the ink faded at midnight [ Wind blowing ] leaving the parchment blank again.'

♪♪♪ 'He might say, 'He who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea.'

♪♪♪ Magic exists in most societies, in one way or another, and one of the forms it exists in a lot of places is, if you know a thing's true name, you have power over the thing, or the person.

And, of course, it's irresistible because I'm a writer; I use words and knowing the names of things -- I magic.

I do make up things that didn't exist before, by naming them.

I call it Earthsea, and there it is.

[laughing] It exists!

♪♪♪ So I had this total parallel between wizards and artists to play with.

[ Birds chirping ] Gaiman: I bought 'Wizard of Earthsea' and I was in love.

It felt right, the idea that naming things was magic.

Mitchell: I love how, in Earthsea, the strongest magic is made of the same thing that the books are made of.

It's words.

If you're a proficiently gifted wizard, you can become a different kind of being. [ Hawk crying ] You can become a hawk or a fish.

But be careful. If you stay there too long, you can't come back.

♪♪♪ Le Guin: In 'A Wizard [laughing] of Earthsea,' Ged has to find out who he is.

He's a kid with a tremendous gift and he knows it.

He knows he has a power that most people don't have.

When you're young, you're kinda -- Nothing can kill you.

Nothing can really hurt you.

You're gonna get away with it, you know.

He really thinks that way.

[laughing] Until he gets nearly killed by his own folly.

Chabon: It's an internal evil.

You know, it's Ged's own worst self... [ Wind blowing ] ...that becomes the evil presence in his life.

[ Water gurgling ] Le Guin: Well, a lotta kids go through something like that and then they have to kind of struggle on and figure out, 'Okay. Actually, I'm not quite who I thought I was.

Who am I?

How do I be a good person?'

Seems like a real simple question, but, most of us spend our lives working at it 'cause, every time you think you've found your way, the way changes.

♪♪♪ I grew up in Berkeley, California.

My father was the head of the Anthropology Department at UC Berkeley.

♪♪♪ Clifford: Alfred Kroeber was the founder of academic anthropology in the early years of the University of California.

Ursula K. Le Guin, and she always keeps the K, for Kroeber, was a precocious faculty brat.

Le Guin: There were a lot of anthropologists around.

It was, you know, just shop talk and I'm listening in.

It was such a mixture of exciting minds and backgrounds, so I'm sure that did something to my head, something good.

♪♪♪ Phillips: Ursula was very much the youngest, the only girl, always trying to get a word in edgewise in this family.

She really learned to debate and to argue and to hold her own in a way that was probably unusual for girls of her generation.

♪♪♪ Le Guin: As soon as school and college were out, we packed up and drove the very long 60 miles up to the Napa Valley.

It's 40 acres with an old ranch house on it.

Those hills are very wild.

You can feel like you're in the absolute wilderness.

♪♪♪ It was heaven for an introvert.

♪♪♪ My father would tell us Indian stories, translating in his head, sometimes, from the language that he'd learned them in.

That was what my father spent years of his life doing, was going around California, on foot, by horse, talking to survivors, to survivors of almost destroyed peoples, trying to save what was left of their culture from the white tide, just taking down what they would and could tell him, just writing it down.

Biestman: It probably was the darkest chapter for all of Indian country and I think anthropologists were on the forefront of what they saw was saving Natives.

Clifford: It was plausible to think, 'We had better record these cultures and these languages because, in a generation, they wouldn't be there.'

♪♪♪ Kroeber will always be identified with the best-known survivor of the decimated populations of Native California, a man who came to be known as Ishi.

Kroeber: Clifford: In 1911, the last of his kin died and Ishi walked south, down toward Oroville, and the anthropologists in San Francisco heard about this wild man, who they thought must be, perhaps the last really authentic, uncorrupted, unchanged, California Indian.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] Le Guin: Ishi's people were among those people who -- You don't tell a stranger your name.

My father said, 'What would you like us to call you?'

and means 'man, a male person.'

We don't know Ishi's name.

We will never know his name.

Clifford: Ishi and Kroeber had a complex friendship.

They respected each other.

They liked each other and, in some ways, they needed each other.

But it was a friendship that was crosscut by relations of power and authority.

[ Water flowing ] Ishi died in 1916 of tuberculosis and it was very traumatic for Kroeber.

There's, I think, no question about that.

Le Guin: I had not heard the name of Ishi when I was a child.

That was a long-ago chapter in my father's life, 'til, all of a sudden, they started saying, 'Hey, Kroeber, you oughta write about -- You know, you're one of the last people who knew Ishi, and you knew him well. You ought to write it.'

He said, 'I cannot do it.

Ask my wife.'

My mother began to work on the story of Ishi and to live through, in her imagination, how Ishi not only survived in a terrible solitude for a while, but also then came alone into a strange world.

Biestman: The story of California Indians had really not been told in a way that at least partially framed the humanity of that story.

[ Water flowing ] Le Guin: My mother's book opened many people's eyes, including my own, to the appalling history of the white conquest of California.

[scoffing] Some people are quick to see injustice and cruelty, but I was slow to see it.

I had to put the pieces together myself and it took a long time.

It's kinda hard to admit that your people did something awful.

[crying] When I absorb something like that, [sigh] what I do with it, the way I handle it is probably to put it into a novel.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Explosions ] There were a lot of violent struggles about power and domination going on in the world and so, also in my novels, but, I was more interested in exploring alternatives to violence and exploitation and this is the basic purpose of the Ekumen, a peaceful consortium of worlds.

The Ekumen was a device that let me send intelligent people all over the universe to find out interesting things.

Mitchell: This pan-galactic association of worlds is one of Ursula's great inventions, one of science fiction's great inventions, as well, I think.

Chabon: The Ekumen provides this huge laboratory in which the writer herself is the scientist who's conducting a kind of experiment, a thought experiment, on human beings and humanity and there are other ways of interacting with each other.

So, like, 'What if we just change this one little thing and that little thing?

What would happen? What would it be like?'

♪♪♪ Le Guin: I wrote a book, back in the '60s, called 'Left Hand of Darkness.'

What I was first asking myself, you know, 'Well, okay, what [laughing] is the difference between men and women?'

And the means I used to talk about it was to invent a race of people who are androgynous, fully androgynous.

You only become sexually active once a month and you may become active as a man or as a woman.

You don't know which.

Brown: And so, in the course of someone's lifetime, they can father a child; they can mother a child.

They can have lovers of all different types.

♪♪♪ [ Wind whistling ] Le Guin: In 'The Left Hand of Darkness,' we meet Genly, the first envoy from the Ekumen to the planet of Winter.

♪♪♪ -[Crowd whispering] -As he tries to navigate this icebound world of genderless people, Genly becomes entangled in a political web.

[ Whispering continues ] He's forced to flee across a glacier, along with Estraven, a native of Winter who has become his ally.

♪♪♪ Mitchell: As they cover the miles over the ice, they also close the miles between themselves, as individuals, as different subspecies of ♪♪♪ Le Guin: 'After all he is no more an oddity, a sexual freak, than I am; up here on the Ice, each of us is singular, isolated, I as cut off from those like me, from my society and its rules, as he from his.'

Mitchell: It's not just a geographical journey.

It's a journey into human cooperation, into a human relationship.

[ Wind whistling ] Gaiman: When 'Left Hand of Darkness' came out, it was perceived, rightly, as having changed things, as being something that was unlike anything else that had been published.

♪♪♪ Miéville: Nowadays, there is a lot more interest in kind of genderqueering and genderfluidity.

I wonder if it might be difficult for a young reader now to realize quite how extraordinary and powerful that was when she did it.

Goss: Readers and critics have thought about 'Left Hand of Darkness' as a feminist novel and I absolutely think it was, for its time, but, there were other writers, feminist science fiction writers, and critics, as well, who were saying, 'You didn't quite go far enough.'

Atwood: She got in trouble with 'Left Hand of Darkness' because, when you weren't changing into some other gender, you were 'he.'

Gaiman: It started getting criticism: 'Why are you forcing us to think of a masculine default all the way?

Couldn't you have done it a different way?'

Do I think that 'The Left Hand of Darkness' that Ursula would write now would be 'The Left Hand of Darkness' that I read in 1971?

No! Obviously not.

She has changed and the world has changed.

[ Birds chirping ] Le Guin: At first, I felt a little bit defensive, but, as I thought about it, I began to see my critics were right.

♪♪♪ I was coming up against how I write about gender equality.

♪♪♪ My job is not to arrive at a final answer and just deliver it.

♪♪♪ I see my job as holding doors open or opening windows, but, [scoffing] who comes in and out the doors?

What do you see out the window?

How do I know?

♪♪♪ Man: There you go. -Student: Thank you!

I'm a germaphobe. [ Laughter ] Mitchell: Ursula Le Guin, she doesn't set herself up as a giver of answers, but, she is one of the very finest explorers of questions.

Man: Let's get ready. We're gonna start right away, okay?

Gaiman: There's a story by Ursula called 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,' which begins as a thought experiment.

[ Laughter ] She tells you that she is going to describe an imaginary place, an imaginary city, and also tells you that she's going to work with you and your imagination to make it the most wonderful city you have ever imagined or experienced.

[ Laughter and chatting ] You are creating this with her and you experience, for several pages, this wonderful city of noble people, the city of cities, Omelas.

And then she says, 'And there's one more thing.

Somewhere in the city, there is a cellar with a child in it who is being mistreated horribly... [ Floorboards creaking ] ...and the joy of all of the people depends on this one child being forced to suffer, degraded, abused, and that everybody in the city knows it.'

[ Liquid dripping ] Man: 'The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.'

The instant the child is let out, the city is gone.

They're not naive. They're not stupid, right?

The joy is real.

The city righteous, but it also relies on the suffering, right?

And so it's -- -Woman: So, basically, their happiness comes from somebody else's misery.

Man: Yes. Look, they don't even need government.

They don't need religious institutions.

They don't really need laws.

They don't need weapons.

They don't need war.

You know what I mean? It's like -- Man #2: It's a utopia.

Man #1: It's kind of a utopia, right?

But it's not a utopia.

Gaiman: And it sets out and it says, 'This is a thought experiment,' and then it goes in and it breaks your heart and it leaves you with a world that is changed.

It leaves you shaken, if you read it right.

Woman #2: It made me feel really upset that this child was being so mistreated.

Man #2: This moral dilemma was compelling to me because it was impossible to pick out like what the course of action would be.

Like there's nothing that would be completely morally right.

Gaiman: This child is seen and some of them go back to their lives and then there are the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Man #3: I would try and help the child.

I really would not care if it would disrupt the whole nature of the city 'cause it's a young child like barely holding on, so I would do anything to help the child.

Man #2: I think I would forget about the child.

I would be one of the people who stays in the town and like puts it in the back of my mind and continues to live happily and peacefully because I have the privilege to do that.

Woman #3: I would walk away.

I think the ones who walk away, they can reflect on this kid again and again and know that they're not a part of it and they're not like supporting it.

Maybe they're -- They make their own home that everything's perfect.

[ Poignant tune plays ] Le Guin: In 'Omelas,' I was setting up a question about where they might be going, the ones who walk away from injustice, and in my novel 'The Dispossessed,' I wanted to go deeper into that question.

♪♪♪ This was the late '60s.

People were asking, 'What might a perfect society look like, a society that was Thinking about that question brought me to nonviolent anarchism.

♪♪♪ I think anarchist thinking is one of those profoundly radical ways of thinking that is very fruitful, very generative.

The more I read on anarchism, the more I realized that it was the only major political theater that hadn't had a utopia written about it and I thought, 'Well, that would be fun!

That would be cool, you know.'

Then I could kind of begin figuring out, 'What would a genuine, working anarchist society be like?'

[ Suspenseful music plays ] In 'The Dispossessed,' a revolutionary group has abandoned their capitalist, Earth-like world to create a just and free society on their moon, with no gender dominance, no coercive governments, no private ownership.

♪♪♪ Brown: I think 'The Dispossessed' gives us a chance to experience what it would be like to live outside of capitalism.

It reminds us that the way we live right now is not the only possible way for humans to live.

♪♪♪ At first, we're drawn to this anarchist society, but we can see the flaws that keep the individual from being entirely free.

I think it's a foundational book.

Like any organizer I ever meet, I'm like, 'You have to read this book.

This is what we're trying to figure out.'

Mitchell: It's a flawed utopia.

It's messy.

The crooked timber of humanity is still crooked there.

Le Guin: I knew from the start that it contained its own betrayal.

[ Crowd shouting ] No human society can just find perfection and sit there.

♪♪♪ That's not how things work.

Mitchell: Certainly, 'The Dispossessed' has this political foundation, about inequality, about class, about hierarchy, but if you just want that, then a political tract will do the job.

I'd read a lot of science fiction, the good, the bad, and the ugly, but I'd never seen the form used that intelligently, that artfully.

[ Piano plays bright tune ] Phillips: In a span of just a few years, we see Ursula release this torrent of major novels back to back, each more original than the last.

She's pushing the boundaries of what science fiction could do.

She takes the whole scene by storm.

♪♪♪ Le Guin: I won both prizes in science fiction and got a good deal of notice.

I was up on a whole other level, at that point, which was very nice because I was, by then, well in my 30s and kind of like, 'It's time I was gettin' somewhere.'

And, as it happened, I was hitting my stride at a very interesting moment for science fiction.

Gaiman: Science fiction has always been a very strange, ragtag area of literature, with tension between what gets called hard science fiction, which is nuts and bolts; and soft science fiction, in which the fiction part is the most important part.

In the '30s and the '40s, it was basically nuts and bolts.

Newitz: There was an older generation of science fiction that was sort of led by people like Heinlein and Asimov.

They were championing science at a time when people were not always sure that science was a cool thing, but, they were not super-aware of how culture worked, beyond a very narrow perspective, which was their perspective as white guys, many of whom had been scientists.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] Le Guin: And then there was us, [ Laughter ] who were kinda [ Applause ] being a little bit uppity, who were willing to kinda change the terms.

A bunch of young turks, we sort of came in [ Jazz-funk plays ] and shook it up.

Newitz: You have people like Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ, women who were writing, people of color, and they have different stories to tell, but also, specifically, bringing in areas of scientific and cultural inquiry that hadn't really been the purview of science fiction before.

Elisabeth: It's during that period that she was starting to do conferences and a lot of science fiction-related public speaking.

♪♪♪ She really began to move into herself, to own herself as someone who has a voice and the authority that goes with that voice and the right to use it.

Le Guin: A lot of us were quite young, so those meetings were very lively.

[ Applause ] Delany: I remember she used to smoke a pipe and I thought that was great.

[ Applause ] Elisabeth: There was an opening out.

She was putting herself into conversation with other writers.

Le Guin: I think it would make sense if I went on and spoke as what I am, a writer, a writer of science fiction, a woman writer of science fiction.

You know, I am a very rare creature.

My species was, at first, believed to be mythological, like the tribble and the unicorn.

[ Laughter, smattering of applause ] Woman #4: In 'The Tombs of Atuan,' you've got a female central character and, yet, she certainly doesn't emerge as a liberated woman.

Le Guin: No, the 'Earthsea' books, as feminist literature, are a total, complete bust, from my own archetypes and from my own cultural upbringing.

I couldn't go down deep and come up with a woman wizard.

Maybe I'll learn to, eventually, but, when I wrote those, I couldn't do it.

I wish I could have.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] When I started writing, which was in the 1940s, and when I started publishing, which was in the 1960s, the sort of basic assumption about fiction was that men were at the center of it.

♪♪♪ In fantasy, in science fiction, the heroes were male.

This was taken for granted.

♪♪♪ And that is true of the first trilogy of 'Earthsea,' even 'Tombs of Atuan,' which is all about women, but look at the women!

♪♪♪ [ Water lapping ] Our main character is a young girl who was taken from her family as a baby to serve the powers of the Tombs.

♪♪♪ [ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Wind whipping ] She doesn't remember the name her mother gave her, Tenar.

♪♪♪ It was taken from her.

She was unnamed and renamed Arha, 'the eaten one.'

♪♪♪ Tenar meets Ged in the Tombs.

♪♪♪ He knows what her real name is and he can give it back to her.

♪♪♪ And that, in a sense, is what frees her from being that rather dreadful kind of priestess that she had to be.

♪♪♪ Tenar is supposed to have all this power, but what is her power?

Sort of nothing.

She controls nothing.

The world is actually being run by men, [chuckling] as it usually was.

Atwood: You have this really pretty masculine, pretty male-dominated world in the 'Earthsea' trilogy.

Just about everything in it, including the dragons, is male.

Miéville: There's a famous bit in the first book where she mentions in passing that there's a saying, 'As weak as a woman's magic,' and, I think, 'As wicked as a woman's magic,' and this is just sort of thrown in there.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] Le Guin: What I'd been doing as a writer was being a woman pretending to think like a man.

♪♪♪ I had to think, 'Now, why have I put men at the center of the books almost entirely and the woman are either marginal or in some way essentially dependent on the men?'

♪♪♪ I started to write the fourth book in the series, 'Tehanu,' and it just wouldn't go [laughing] and it took me 17 years to figure out why Tenar did that and what her way to go was and, during that time, that gap, a lot of things happened in my life.

A lot of things happened in the world, naturally.

[ Funk plays ] ♪♪♪ Along comes the revival of feminism in the '70s, but I was not part of it as a movement, partly because, as a housewife and mother of three kids at home, I was not behaving the way a proper feminist should.

There was a considerable feeling that we needed to cut loose from marriage, from men, and from motherhood, [scoffing] and there was no way I was going to do -[Shouting] -[Whistling] -And it was kind of only as I began getting more confidence in who I was, I began to feel more at home in it as a movement.

[ Melancholy tune plays ] Of course I can write novels with one hand and bring up three kids with the other.

Yeah, sure, you know, watch me.

There's a lot of pride and self-respect involved.

I can do it. I do it, by God.

♪♪♪ McIntyre: The modern feminist movement had just sort of hit science fiction and some people embraced it and some people were pretty upset about it.

There was a big argument about, you know, whether there was room for women in science fiction and they meant as readers, as writers, and as characters.

Atwood: It was almost like taking a cork out of a bottle of champagne that you'd just shaken up.

You know, there was a kind of explosion of ideas and opinions that had been bottled up for a while.

Le Guin: By the way, I want to state that think Ernest Hemingway was unjust and full of [bleep] [ Laughter and applause ] [ Cheering ] So I kinda had to rethink my entire approach to writing fiction.

I learned to read other women's writings.

♪♪♪ It was important to think about privilege and power and domination, in terms of gender, which was something that fantasy had not done.

♪♪♪ After letting 'Tehanu' sit on the shelf for all those years, I found that I ready to go on with her story, and that's what finally led me to writing 'Tehanu.'

[ Tranquil tune plays ] [ Wind blowing ] All I changed is the point of view.

All of a sudden, we are seeing Earthsea, not from the point of the view of the powerful, but from the point of view of the powerless.

[ Door closes, footsteps approach ] Gaiman: As you read it, you go, 'Okay.

Everything that she said in the first three books is true, but it wasn't the whole picture.'

Mitchell: Earthsea becomes less magic, becomes a colder, harder, grittier, earthier place.

It perhaps mirrors your own phases of growth as a human being.

Goss: We can see Le Guin growing in front of our eyes, examining the constructs of gender in Earthsea, the world that she herself created.

You can feel a kind of simmering rage, a simmering rage at injustice.

Le Guin: It was a very interesting [laughing] book to write, not an easy one.

The way I handled it upset many of my older readers, particularly men, because they saw it [gruffly] as a feminist statement and they were alarmed. [sniff] They perceived it as a kind of betrayal because my hero, Ged, has lost his power and a male hero that has lost his power is degraded, in some people's eyes.

[ Dragon snarling ] [ Suspenseful music plays ] It was a radical revision from within, of my whole enterprise in writing.

and, for a while, I thought it was going to kinda silence me.

♪♪♪ But I think, if I hadn't gone through with it and learned how to write from my own being, as a woman, I probably would've stopped writing.

♪♪♪ [ Rain pouring ] Charles: Come on, now. Catch up over there.


Downes-Le Guin: I didn't even know that my father actually read her manuscripts until, you know, relatively recently, that he's generally the first person who reads whatever she writes.

Le Guin: Mostly, you just sort of say, 'That's good,' [laughing] which is what I want to hear.

[ Laughter ] Caroline: I do remember very animated conversations, you know, where we would say, 'Don't argue with each other!'

and they would say, 'We're not arguing!

We're just discussing!' [laughing] Le Guin: Yes, we survived.

Downes-Le Guin: About the time we were emerging from doing our homework and getting hungry, they would be sitting on either side of the fireplace, as they do to this day.

Le Guin: ...went fine, too.

[ Piano plays bright tune ] [ Birds squawking ] Charles: I got a Fulbright Scholarship to go to France and that's how we met, 'cause she had one, too.

Le Guin: [laughing] I thought he was really good company and really handsome, so I would say I was in love by the third night out.

'We met at sea, married in a foreign language; what wonder if we cross a continent on foot each time to find each other at secret borders, bringing of all my streams and darknesses of gold and your deep graves and islands, a feather a flake of mica a willow leaf that is our country, ours alone.'

♪♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ My mother died in 1980.

My children were all out of the house by then.

It just was time for me to come home, somehow.

♪♪♪ I realized what I wanted to write about was here, place.

Above all places, this is mine.

♪♪♪ This is the center.

[ Suspenseful music plays ] [ Birds chirping ] It started with the idea of writing a utopia, but a different kinda utopia, a utopia that wasn't a kind of political blueprint, a sort of ecological utopia.

♪♪♪ Phillips: She told me it was the utopia that she wanted to live in.

It's almost a return to the world of the California Indians, but she didn't feel that she could appropriate that world and set stories in that world, so she made it into a future world.

♪♪♪ It may be her magnum opus, although it's not her easiest book.

Le Guin: I was surprised that my editor accepted it.

I mean, he was taking a chance.

It's this great, big, fat book about a nonexistent people on the West Coast with a music tape included in the book.

[ ] ♪♪♪ It's a grab bag, a bag of scraps and pieces, and I had a kinda conviction that this was a good way to write a book.

♪♪♪ Goss: Le Guin's fiction is radically experimental.

She gives us all these different ways of thinking about fiction itself and it's a kind of freedom that she gives to other writers.

It's as though she says, 'Look, I got away with it.

If I got away with it, maybe you can get away with it, too.'

[ Suspenseful music plays ] Newitz: In the '90s and in the early noughties, it really felt like a new book from her every year and it was like she just was on fire again.

We're seeing the same themes that we know and love, about alien worlds and dealing with issues around feminist identity, but, everything is much more shaded in gray than ever before.

Mitchell: The later work, it haunts you in more subtle ways, more nuanced ways.

Truth is a muddy thing, now.

What if you aren't a wizard?

What if you can't fix things by a spell?

What if the only language you've got is the language of compromise, of mess, of misunderstanding?

Gaiman: But the fact of the matter is there was nobody who was moving as brilliantly from genre to genre as Ursula K. Le Guin.

Goss: What's happened most recently is the broadening of Le Guin's audience and readership.

She's being recognized, not just as one of our great science fiction and fantasy writers, but one of our great American writers.

[ Birds chirping ] Gaiman: There's a giant of literature who is finally getting recognized.

I take enormous pleasure in awarding the 2014 medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ursula K. Le Guin.

[ Applause ] [ Whistling ] Miéville: All too often, people who are writers and authors who are marginalized and/or radical are basically ignored or mocked or denigrated for a long time and then pass directly from there to being national treasures.

Essentially, you go from outsider to full domestication and one of the things that's so wonderful about Le Guin is that she would not and will not allow that to happen.

Le Guin: I rejoice in accepting it for and sharing it with all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction.

Miéville: This is why the speech that she gave when she won the sort of lifetime achievement, 'Welcome to the canon' award, to give it its invisible subtitle, was that it was, you know, a perfectly courteous, but full-on swingeing attack on the undermining of art and aesthetics for profit within the publishing industry.

[ Laughter and applause ] Le Guin: Books, you know, they're not just commodities.

The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.

We live in capitalism.

Its power seems inescapable.

So did the divine right of kings.

[ Laughter ] Gaiman: I was there, giving her the medal for literature and then going and sitting down and listening as Ursula took apart, primarily,, in front of an audience of booksellers, many of whom [laughing] were there from, who were also bankrolling the evening.

Le Guin: I was so scared before I gave that speech.

It was awful.

I was not saying what they expected the old lady from Oregon to say.

I have had a long career and a good one, in good company.

Now, here, at the end of it, I really don't want to watch American literature get sold down the river.

Gaiman: That took an immense amount of guts, the same amount of guts that Ursula has shown time and time again, just addressing subjects that are not to be spoken of.

Goss: We don't have very many of these in this country, but she is a public intellectual.

She has spoken out on behalf of artistic freedom.

She has spoken out against systems of government that repress public discourse.

She has been a consistent voice for the human spirit.

♪♪♪ Le Guin: And I don't offer any 10 easy steps to fame and fortune as an author because I know that, in art, there are no easy steps.

To learn to make something well can take your whole life, and it's worth it.

That'll do, I think.

[ Laughter ] Gaiman: You cannot deny Ursula Le Guin's influence on writers, now, of all kinds and I think that, in the final analysis, is much more important than whether she was being reviewed as she should've been reviewed in 1975 because she was being read by the people who would grow up to change opinions and change the world.

[ Indistinct conversations ] Chabon: It's certainly a remarkable writer who can meet you when you're 10 years old and give you something wonderful to read and still be there for you when you're 45 years old and everywhere in between.

I think she's one of the greatest writers that the 20th century American literary scene produced.

[ Poignant tune plays ] Gaiman: It's like that famous Earth shot called right?

We see our Earth just rising over the Moon, this little, blue, fragile circle.

♪♪♪ Ursula's usage of science fiction, I feel, is to make these photographs so we can, perhaps for the first time, see our world from a different perspective.

If a world is dreamable, maybe it can be dreamed into being.

♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ Le Guin: 'When I take you to the Valley, you'll see the blue hills on the left and the blue hills on the right, the rainbow and the vineyards under the rainbow late in the rainy season, and maybe you'll say, 'There it is, that's it!'' ♪♪♪ 'But I'll say, 'A little farther.'

We'll go on, I hope, and you'll see the roofs of the little towns and the hillsides yellow with wild oats... and maybe you'll say, 'Let's stop here, this is it!'' ♪♪♪ 'But I'll say, 'A little farther yet.'

We'll go on, and you'll hear the quail calling on the mountain by the springs of the river...' ♪♪♪ '...and looking back you'll see the river running downward through the wild hills behind, below, and you'll say, 'Isn't that it, the Valley?'

And all I'll be able to say is, 'Drink this water of the spring, rest here a while, we have a long way yet to go, and I can't go without you.'' ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ [ Mid-tempo instrumental music plays ] ♪♪♪ [ Grand Funk Railroad's 'We're an American Band' plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪ ♪ We're an American band ♪ ♪ Ooh, ooh ♪ [ Mid-tempo instrumental music plays ] ♪♪♪ ♪♪♪


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