New Documentary Focuses on Ursula K. Le Guin

From The Wall Street Journal:

“Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin” is the first documentary about the pioneering science-fiction writer—and pretty much the first film of any kind to showcase her work. Although Ms. Le Guin was writing about dragons and wizard schools back in 1968 for her Earthsea series, there have been no high-profile movies based on her 20 novels or more than 100 short stories.

“I don’t think Harry Potter would have existed without Earthsea existing,” author Neil Gaiman says in the documentary, which premieres Friday on PBS. Ms. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, a young-adult series about a sprawling archipelago of island kingdoms, included five novels and many stories written between 1968 and 2001.

Other writers who discuss Ms. Le Guin’s work and influence in the film include Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), David Mitchell (“Cloud Atlas”) and Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”).

“I think she’s one of the greatest writers that the 20th-century American literary scene produced,” Mr. Chabon says.

. . . .

“I never wanted to be a writer—I just wrote,” she says in the film. Believing science fiction should be less about predicting the future than observing the present, she invented fantastical worlds that were their own kind of anthropology, exploring how societies work.

In her 1969 novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” she introduces a genderless race of beings who are sexually active once a month, either as a man or woman—but don’t know which it will be. Her 1973 short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” introduces a utopian city where everyone is happy. But readers learn that this blissful world is entirely dependent on one child being imprisoned in a basement and mistreated. The joy of all the people hinges on the child being forced to suffer, and everyone knows it. The author had been horrified to learn through her father’s research about the slaughter of native tribes that made modern California possible.

. . . .

As a female sci-fi writer, “my species was once believed to be mythological, like the tribble and the unicorn,” Ms. Le Guin said in an address before the 1975 Worldcon science-fiction convention in Melbourne, Australia. Her work was called feminist sci-fi, but she grew into that label awkwardly. “There was a considerable feeling that we needed to cut loose from marriage, from men, and from motherhood. And there was no way I was gonna do that,” she said. “Of course I can write novels with one hand and bring up three kids with the other. Yeah, sure. Watch me.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)


12 thoughts on “New Documentary Focuses on Ursula K. Le Guin”

  1. There were female SF/F writers before, her, too. I’m not sure where the belief that they were mythical comes from. I’m getting sick of running across, it, though.

      • I devoured Andre Norton when I was in High School. I would read all of her books during summer breaks. I still look at her as the Gold Standard. The Witch World stories where people would become so powerful that they transcended reality, and the only part of them left was the foundation of their towers(Don’t step into those rings of stone. HA!) I need to read Ice Crown again. I prefer that to Left Hand of Darkness for a world populated as experimental societies. The concept of scientists creating worlds and populations to study is key to many of the books I have in production. That’s Norton as inspiration, not LeGuin.

        I didn’t find Zenna Henderson until the big collection of People Stories came out from SFBC. Deeply disturbing that I missed her growing up. The same with C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett.

        There are more women authors that I can’t think of right now, but that’s normal for me. I’ve read so many books that they are blended into one vast story.

        BTW, I noticed that the documentary will be on American Masters, August 2nd, Friday on my local PBS station. That’s the audience they are shooting for, not voracious readers of SF/F/H who know better. HA!

        • You probably missed THE PEOPLE movie, then.
          Kim Darby and (ha!) Willian Shatner. Top billing: Darby.
          Pretty good. SF from when there was precious little SF on TV.

          I caught it on late night and the title reminded of the references in a Darkover book.

          Haven’t been able to buy it on tape or disk but it might show up on some strreaming service.

          For now there is a blurry low res version on youtube.
          Good sound, though. 😉

          Came out eight years before PBS did LeGuin’s LATHE OF HEAVEN. Better than the A&E version despite the low budget and limited effects.

          • Yes!

            The YouTube video is just as good as the one available on Amazon. I suspect they are from the same source.

            Having to shuffle your feet in the dirt to make sure you aren’t flying. I’ve had dreams like that. HA!

            I need to finish Man Floating and The Man Who Could Not Fly and get them in the system.

    • Same here. And I enjoyed Andre Norton’s Witch World more than Earthsea. Ged always left me cold, but Simon Tregarth had exciting science-fantasy adventures — witches and swamp men battling interdimensional aliens? I’m there.

      I read somewhere that JK Rowling was influenced by George MacDonald, who also influenced the Inklings. And a literary critic observed that Rowling was a medievalist, and used the themes of medieval alchemy in her structuring of the Potter stories. I personally never noticed a similarity between Earthsea and the wizarding world.

      I am surprised that LeGuin in 1975 did not know about Brackett or Moore or Norton or Ann McCaffrey. One wonders how those women reacted to the news that they were mythical.

      • Some of them would’ve laughed.
        The pioneers were professional writers, not aspirants to literary culture. Brackett in particular. She could’ve written more great SF but she was too busy writing for Hollywood. Better payday.

        I’m pretty sure that given a choice LeGuin would rather spend time with Naomi Wolf than Moore or Brackett or Judith Merril.

        • Judith Merril! Thank you for the name, I couldn’t remember it. I once used “That Only a Mother” as my version of “lorem ipsum dolar sit amet” when I was creating an online contest entry form. The contest was for Mother’s Day …

  2. I suspect LeGuin’s writing is considered closer to literature than to “pure” genre fiction (i.e. pulps). Because of that, and because of _Left Hand of Darkness_, she’s filed with Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and philosophically similar writers. They wrote sci-fi and fantasy “literature”, or so I was assured by a literature professor.

    Because Brackett, Moore, and others wrote for lucre as well as turning out “pure” genre fiction, they don’t count in the literary world.

    (Which is sort of skewed, because the first two Witchworld books have a similar silvery, misty feeling of setting to the Earthsea books, in my opinion, even though they are very different in other ways.)

  3. It comes down to accessibility.
    If the narrative is clean it can’t possibly be as good as a challenging book. Never mind how enduring either may or not be.

    Whatever you call it SHAMBLEAU will be read for centuries.
    And rightfully so.

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