The Sci-Fi Novel is a science fiction blog by Andrea Elisabeth Kovarcsik. Her posts explore the 100 best sci-fi novels, as well as sci-fi theory, themes, philosophies, and more.

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Ursula K. Le Guin on Writing Science Fiction

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Last week I wrote about sci-fi author Ray Bradbury's interview with The Paris Review, in which he discussed the art of writing science fiction. This week I thought I'd delve into Ursula K. Le Guin's thoughts on the same, from another interview in The Review.

 I haven't read any of Le Guin's work yet, but her novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are both on My List.

In "Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221," Le Guin talks about being labeled as a sci-fi writer and her lifelong passion for writing and poetry.

When asked how she feels about the term science fiction, she replies:

I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Paris Review

Le Guin's stories are less hard sci-fi and more soft sci-fi, but for me, at least, that doesn't make them any less science fiction.

She states:

The “hard” science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Paris Review

If we accept Robert Silverberg's first characteristic of science fiction as "an underlying speculative concept, systematically developed in a way that amounts to an exploration of the consequences of allowing such a departure from known reality," then Le Guin's novels surely qualify. The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, is about a society in which humans have no fixed gender. That's a speculative concept that explores the consequences of a departure from known reality.

I like what Le Guin says about drawing on the social sciences. Those are the types of sci-fi stories I enjoy the most as well, ones that explore the consequences of a speculative concept for human beings, and that don't necessarily explain every equation or piece of technology. I tend to be more interested in the consequences of that technology than the technology itself. Though both strands have their place in the genre.

Part of Le Guin's mistrust of the term science fiction may also come from the fact that back in the Golden Age of sci-fi, the '50s and '60s, science fiction as a genre was pretty frowned upon and seen as simple pulp stories. I'm not exactly sure how much has changed today, as critics seem to draw a thick line between literary fiction and science fiction.

Le Guin and the interviewer go on to discuss fiction in general and why it's important for our spirits. She says:

It has something to do with the very nature of fiction. That age-old question, Why don’t I just write about what’s real? A lot of twentieth-century— and twenty-first-century—American readers think that that’s all they want. They want nonfiction. They’ll say, I don’t read fiction because it isn’t real. This is incredibly naive. Fiction is something that only human beings do, and only in certain circumstances. We don’t know exactly for what purposes. But one of the things it does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before. This is what a lot of mystical disciplines are after—simply seeing, really seeing, really being aware. Which means you’re recognizing the things around you more deeply, but they also seem new. So the seeing-as-new and recognition are really the same thing.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Paris Review

Fiction as recognition and seeing-as-new. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Be sure to read the entire interview from The Paris Review!


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