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Ursula Le Guin and the Science of Fiction

Ursula Le Guin (born Ursula Kroeber in 1929) is one of America's pre-eminent writers of science fiction and fantasy. Raised in an illustriously intellectual home--her father and mother were noted anthropologists; her father held the first Ph. D. granted in anthropology by Columbia University--Le Guin came to fiction first and foremost through thought, through ideas. Her juvenalia include stories of distant, unknown countries--fictional anthropology as it were. She recieved her B. A. from Radcliffe in 1951 and her M. A. from Columbia in 1952. It seems natural that she would eventually be married to an intellectual, the French historian Charles Le Guin who taught at Emory for many years.

Le Guin has been heavily influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien (his complete mapping of a fictional world) and by Philip K. Dick (the notion that literature is an exploration of "what ifs"). She in turn has been cited as a major influence by both Salman Rushdie and David Mitchell, both of whom excel, not at the realism rigorously practiced by the likes of Anita Brookner or Richard Price, but at crafting alternate, time-skewed worlds.

Le Guin's main influence, however, has been to her own genres. She has been credited with introducing deep psychological underpinnings to science fiction. Today, science fiction and fantasy divide themselves into two camps: software and hardware, if you will. These days, after Le Guin, software versions in this genre are more about the motives, interests, and desires of people in alternate worlds; the hardware geeks (like those who read the George R. R. Martin novels or watch their film versions on HBO) are far more interested in the technology, geography, and warfare of alternate realms. If you've watched any of the recent incarnations of Dr. Who on BBC, you'll have seen the series shift in seven seasons from hardware to software. If you've ever had to endure any of the Lucas Star Wars movies, you'll have seen a hardware geek trying to pretend he's writing and directing a software incarnation of his genre (to middling if not baleful results--for the best review of those movies, see Anthony Lane's here).

And so THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Yes, there are the bits about the planet, its politics, its geography. Even the best science fiction writers have to satisfy the hardware geeks. If you're have problems with the book, blow through those parts and get to the software. That's what we'll want to discuss.

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