Those who refuse to listen to dragons are probably doomed to spend their lives acting out the nightmares of politicians. We like to think we live in daylight, but half the world is always dark; and fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night.

Ursula K Le Guin
Fantasy, like poetry, speaks the language of the night
San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle 21st November 1976

something fantastic

March 27, 2020

This was going to be a talk about fantasy. But I have not been feeling very fanciful lately, and could not decide what to say; so I have been going about picking people’s brains for ideas. “What about fantasy? Tell me something about fantasy.” And one friend of mine said, “All right, I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten years ago, I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, “Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children.

Ursula K Le Guin
Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?

one for the completists

March 25, 2020

Samuel R Delaney has Dhalgren, Vladimir Nabokov had Ada, or Ardor, and James Joyce had Finnegan’s Wake, or simply “the Wake,” as the true fans prefer. (Their funeral). Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin is another dense, late-career doorstop of a book considered in equal parts the summit of a life’s work and “one for the completists.” At 525 pages, including field notes, stories, maps, charts, poems, plays, histories, romances, interviews, and interpolated texts, all of which are housed in the front of the book, as well as a “Back of the Book” section, to house the sheet music, recipes, studies of flora and fauna, “generative metaphors,” the glossary, and a made-up alphabet with a guide to pronunciation, it’s easy to see Le Guin’s study of the Kesh people from the Valley of the Na, once the Napa Valley, as a folly, the work in which she gave into the temptation of all science fiction and fantasy writers — that of pedantic world-building, a sort of “map = territory” madness. Like many a masterwork that came before, the book is a storehouse of the author’s themes. But the one thing you couldn’t accuse it of is that classic combination of authorial self-indulgence and apathy towards the reader. (For one, Le Guin pointed out you don’t have to read her book front to back; approach it however you like.) Always Coming Home isn’t one of those masterworks that heaves through our culture like the spaceship Rama, to be explored but never understood by the puny humans who crawl across its unfeeling surface. With Le Guin, the door home is open, if you know the way.

Mazin Saleem
I never did like smart-ass utopians — on Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

When asked to “define the difference between fantasy and science fiction,” I mouth and mumble and always end up talking about the spectrum, that very useful spectrum, along which one thing shades into another. Definitions are for grammar, not literature, I say, and boxes are for bones. But of course fantasy and science fiction are different, just as red and blue are different; they have different frequencies; if you mix them (on paper — I work on paper) you get purple, something else again.

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

fantasy is true

February 1, 2020

I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.

For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it’s true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that’s precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy – they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that’s more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: ‘Unicorns aren’t real.’ And that fact is one that never got anyone anywhere (except in the story ‘The Unicorn in the Garden,’ by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin.) It is by such statements as, ‘Once upon a time there was a dragon,’ or ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ — it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth.

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Language of the Night

We are volcanoes

December 28, 2019

When women speak truly they speak subversively — they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth,  as human truth,  all the maps change.  There are new mountains. That’s what I want – to hear you erupting. You young Mount St Helenses who don’t know the power in you – I want to hear you.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Bryn Mawr College commencement speech, 1986, published in the essay collection: Dancing At The Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places.

afraid of fantasy

December 8, 2019

For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it’s true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that’s precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

writers make up stuff

December 7, 2019

A recent letter in The Oregonian compares a politician’s claim to tell “alternative facts” to the inventions of science fiction. The comparison won’t work. We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real – all invented, imagined — and we call it fiction because it isn’t fact. We may call some of it “alternative history” or “an alternate universe,” but make absolutely no pretence that our fictions are “alternative facts.”

Facts aren’t all that easy to come by. Honest scientists and journalists, among others, spend a lot of time trying to make sure of them. The test of a fact is that it simply is so – it has no “alternative.” The sun rises in the east. To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or “alternative fact”) is a lie.

A lie is a non-fact deliberately told as fact. Lies are told in order to reassure oneself, or to fool, or scare, or manipulate others. Santa Claus is a fiction. He’s harmless. Lies are seldom completely harmless, and often very dangerous. In most times, most places, by most people, liars are considered contemptible.

Ursula K. Le Guin
1st February letter to the editor of the Oregonian

(Now that’s what I call “Dragon Wisdom” – P)

see a symbol hiding

November 30, 2019

In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing course the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

Well, you could start with butter and fresh farm eggs, it’s hard to go wrong from there, unless you’re a vegan. All right, I’ll try to be serious — it’s a serious question. But an awfully big one. I hope to get some smaller ones, such as, “Do I have to outline my plot first?” or “How often can I split an infinitive?”

I guess the way to make something good is to make it well.

If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good. A lot of memorable novels have been made that way. Even with undistinguished language and predictable characters, if a story has interesting, convincing ideas or events, good pacing, a narrative that carries the reader to a conclusion that in one way or another satisfies — it’s a good story. A lot of memorable sf has been made that way.

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

The poet Theodore Roethke said it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

At this stage, having the opinion of readers qualified to judge, or a trusted peer-group, can be tremendously useful. Other eyes can see what you’re too close to your work to see, give perspective, open up possibilities.

On the other hand, the pressure of opinion — from readers, classmates, teachers, in a MFA program or a workshop, from an agent, from an editor — may end up as worse than useless. If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?

The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

And then, once in a while, none of that sweat and trial and error and risk-taking is necessary. Something just comes to you as you write. You write it down, it’s there, it’s really good. You look at it unbelieving. Did I do that?

I think that kind of gift mostly comes as the pay-off for trying, patiently, repeatedly, to make something well.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Interview in Book View Café 27th July 2015