Kelly Link in Praise of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Genuine Magic
“It is striking how resonant Le Guin’s work remains even as the future she describes recedes into our past.”
Feature photo by William Anthony.
Originally, The Lathe of Heaven appeared in two installments in Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine started in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback. Ursula Le Guin, born in 1929, read Amazing Stories as a child and would go on to outlive almost all the science fiction pulp magazines. While many of the writers Gernsback introduced to the field have fallen out of fashion and been forgotten, Le Guin’s influence has expanded beyond all original bounds of genre, appropriately so, as her writing was profoundly slippery, generous, shape-shifting, and outreaching from the very start.
The Lathe of Heaven has the feel of a fable, part fairy tale, part philosophical and psychological exploration of questions central to much of Le Guin’s work: What are the consequences of working for change, even with the best of intentions? What is the cost of utopia? What is the use and meaning of dreams? The protagonist, George Orr, changes the world in dreaming. He is frightened by this power, which he does not control consciously, but his therapist, Dr. Haber, seeks to harness his power to make a better world.
It’s a novel with very few characters, the sort of narrative I can’t help but imagine as a kind of black box theater performance, and The Lathe of Heaven was, in fact, twice made into a movie (Le Guin’s contemporary, the artist Ed Emshwiller, served as a visual consultant to the first adaptation, which is perhaps the only faithful adaptation of any of Le Guin’s work). It is also, notably, Le Guin’s deliberate foray into Philip K. Dick’s territory, with its hallucinatory beginning, its drug-using protagonist, and its surreal, literally world-melting alternate realities. Dick and Le Guin were admirers of each other’s work and occasional correspondents.
They had attended the same high school at the same time, though in a detail once again straight out of a Dick novel, neither Le Guin nor any of her high school class could afterward recall him in any of their classes or circles. I would argue that The Lathe of Heaven is also in conversation with the work of Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon was one of the first writers to introduce psychological realism into science fiction, exploring not only outer space but also the frontiers inside the human mind. Le Guin admired Sturgeon’s writing, and Sturgeon reviewed The Lathe of Heaven for the New York Times.
And now I have to digress for a moment, because I have so far only mentioned male writers to put Le Guin’s work into context, when Le Guin was part of a cadre of women writers who were beginning to publish science fiction. The first time I ever heard Le Guin speak was in 1996 at WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention still held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. She and the writer and editor Judith Merril were guests of honor, and I remember attending a live reading of Always Coming Home in which many of the writers present took part.
So many of them were and are the literary descendants of Le Guin: Pat Murphy, Karen Joy Fowler, Nalo Hopkinson, myself. I remember Judith Merril zipping around the convention in an electric wheelchair, and the awarding of the Tiptree Award (now the Otherwise Award) to Le Guin for her short story “Mountain Ways” and to Mary Doria Russell for her novel The Sparrow. I remember Le Guin’s clarity, her humor, her presence, for lack of a better word.
At the time she wrote The Lathe of Heaven , Alice Sheldon was publishing groundbreaking short fiction under the pen name James Tiptree Jr., Kate Wilhelm was working as an editor and writer, while Joanna Russ was finishing The Female Man. Carol Emshwiller was writing the short stories that would become part of the collection Joy in Our Cause.
These writers were all in conversation with each other—in their work, in their private correspondence, arguing with each other or praising each other in reviews and on panels and in other venues. There has long been an idea that science fiction can be viewed as a kind of conversation in narrative, with one writer responding to another writer’s book with a book of their own, building upon each other’s ideas, or setting out to correct one another’s errors. The field is, quite happily, now so large and varied that this conversation is more difficult to follow, and, in fact, I expect that the reader of this introduction may not be familiar with some of these writers. If so, I encourage you to seek them out. Le Guin certainly would have.
And a final point: Le Guin had such a long, remarkable, and prolific career that it’s possible to see, quite plainly, how she also was in conversation with herself over the course of her career. Over time, as she wrote, she went back to revisit the characters and settings and events of earlier novels and ideas. Most notably, she returned to Earthsea, to consider why her school for wizards had only admitted men: Tehanu and the further Earthsea books are gorgeous, thoughtful complications and enlargements of her original trilogy.
When thinking of Le Guin’s body of work, I can’t help seeing it as a kind of landscape: a range of mountains, an archipelago of islands, an arrangement of celestial bodies in the sky by which other writers navigate. Science fiction is sometimes called the language of ideas, which gives dreams and the subconscious short shrift, I feel. Le Guin was an expert at navigating all of these territories, though.
As for ideas, she understood they take their shapes and certainties from a moment in time, a particular culture and the terrain and climate it inhabits. She understands, too, that the inner spaces of the human psyche are connected to these landscapes.
As I reread The Lathe of Heaven this summer, it was striking how resonant Le Guin’s work remains in 2022, even as the future she describes, 2002, recedes into our past. Portland as a place of social upheaval, experimentation, revolutionary change; plagues; war; looming shortages; climate change; cramped housing; limited social services; the threat of volcanic eruption. I was reminded of contemporary popular online conspiracy theories that posit we now live in an alternate timeline; for example, the belief that the Berenstain Bears books were once the Berenstein Bears instead, before the world shifted minutely.
The smaller details of The Lathe of Heaven, too, might as well be drawn from present day—for example, the ear buttons tourists wear as they wander, and the nightmarish dry riverbed beneath the funicular George Orr and Heather Lelache ride at the climax of the novel. The threat of multiple, nightmarish apocalypses hangs over the novel in a way that feels almost reassuring: the world is always ending, Le Guin seems to say, but it’s always beginning, too. Some readers may find George Orr a somewhat frustrating protagonist; he is especially atypical for a science fiction protagonist of the time. He’s as far from Robert Heinlein’s “competent man” as one can get, and yet Orr isn’t Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” either. Orr might “prefer not to,” but he isn’t opaque.
We have access to his point of view, his reasoning. Eventually we discover that he is suffering through a profound trauma that lies at the heart of his power. Dr. Haber is disinterested in investigating and working to heal this trauma. Instead, he ignores it and deepens it. If you’ve ever had a bad therapist, this is an uncomfortable novel but also one that seems entirely plausible. Because I am a writer, though, I can’t help but see myself in both Orr and Dr. Haber—I’m suspicious of the places in my subconscious where stories come welling up, even though I am also grateful. I revise, as Haber does, in the hopes of making things better and to assert control. Like Orr, I would not wish for the power to change the world without its consent, even as I try to imagine other worlds, other Either/Ors.
Orr is much like the changeable mural on the wall of Haber’s office: a dormant volcano, a horse that is “ridden” by Haber, as, in folktales, witches ride the anxious dreamer. In fact, The Lathe of Heaven opens with three noteworthy descriptions of the natural world. There is a jellyfish, a dandelion, and Mount Hood. As this is a novel in which psychology features prominently, it seems permissible to look at what these might signify.
A jellyfish, of course, might represent either passivity or a threat. A dandelion growing up from concrete is a symbol of frailty but also of persistence. Mount Hood, looming on the office wall, is a representation of permanence and also volatility. Like George Orr, who reads to other characters as a feminine man, they are markers of balance in which opposites are contained.
Le Guin was the daughter of the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the psychologist and writer Theodora Kroeber. She was raised in a household rich in books—she was particularly engaged by her father’s copy of the Tao Te Ching, and its DNA is richly seeded into this novel, though it is present in all of her writing and her ways of thinking. She grew up in Berkeley, attended Radcliffe and Columbia University, married, settled in Portland, Oregon, where she brought up three children and lived for most of her life. Her short stories began to appear in the magazines Fantastic Science Fiction and Amazing Stories in the early 1960s. Rocannon’s World was Le Guin’s first published novel (1966); her last was Lavinia (2008), though she continued to write and publish poetry and essays.
When she died in 2018, she had been a writer, translator, editor, teacher, reviewer, and public lecturer for six decades. It would be difficult to name a modern writer whose contribution to American letters was more significant, more influential, more long-lasting, even though her best-known work was published in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. She wrote once of Philip K. Dick that the rejection by publishers of his early realistic novels “forced him, harshly but fortunately, away from the glum realism of the fifties into broader regions of the imagination where he could find his own way.”
She might have been writing about herself here. Her early books, unpublished at the time, were in a realistic vein, and she began to write science fiction because she felt science fiction editors and readers would find their way into her work. And they did, and she went on writing the kind of science fiction that changed the genre around it.
Consider only the period between 1968 and 1974, which saw the publication of the original Earthsea trilogy (which more or less introduced the idea of magic schools into literature), The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and Robert Silverberg’s anthology New Dimensions 3, which contained Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
The remarkable variety, speed, and genre-changing newness of Le Guin’s work in this period has an almost mythic quality to it. It isn’t the creation of the world in seven days, but seven years is nevertheless a startlingly short period of time in which to create so very many new worlds, as well as new ways of seeing the world(s) in which we live. George Orwell’s 1984 may have become a kind of perpetual reference point in political debate, but I would imagine that more people read Le Guin’s novels.
The protagonist of The Lathe of Heaven is, of course, named George Orr, which can be read as a wink toward Orwell, but later on another character calls him, jokingly, “Mr. Either Orr,” a bit of wordplay Le Guin used more than once in reference to Oregon as a place of fantastical slippage as well as a state of mind. Le Guin’s meaning is seldom singular, and, like George Orr, she remade the world again and again in her books.
I’ve read most of Le Guin’s novels over and over again for consolation, for courage, for insight into how to live in the world, for instruction on how I might piece together narratives of my own. I find them astonishing and changeable and responsive to the place in time where I meet them.
To write an introduction to a novel, generally, is like attempting to describe, in advance, the lineage and mechanics of a magic trick to the audience, who will shortly see the real thing for themselves. When the novelist in question is Ursula K. Le Guin, the situation is even more dubious—the more closely you look, the more the suspicion grows that there is no trick at all, only genuine magic and a genuine magician. Of course, the difference between a magician and a writer is that when the writer leaves the stage the story remains. The magic persists.
Scribner’s new edition of The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, with an introduction by Kelly Link, is available now. Introduction copyright 2023 by Kelly Link.