Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula K LeGuin

I woke up this morning to the incredibly sad news that the science fiction writer Ursula K LeGuin has died. I thought I’d like to do a blog post about how important she was for me, but didn’t know if I’d have time. However, a storm has wreaked havoc on central Scotland’s railways, so I’m using the lengthy delay I’m experiencing to pen some thoughts.

I wasn’t much of a sci-fi reader under I started reading LeGuin’s work. Not long after I first met my husband, he made me watch a very good BBC2 documentary about her work. He reads loads of sci-fi and fantasy, or varying quality, and is also a massive fan of LeGuin’s work. This spent some time discussing The Left Hand of Darkness. I was fascinated by the themes it picked up and my husband encouraged me to read it. Not being a regular reader of sci-fi at that point I did find it hard work – the funny names that my brain couldn’t work out how to pronounce to itself; the descriptions of alien worlds. I’ve since realised, if you’re not regular sci-fi reader that this is a barrier you have to overcome (I’ve currently a third of the way through Iain M. Banks’ Excession and am just about understanding it now). Once I’d finished it, I knew it was a good book, but I wasn’t overawed by it.

A little while later, it was during the write-up of my PhD thesis, I then read The Dispossessed. This story of lives in anarcho-syndicalism and rampant capitalism really resonated with me. In my thesis I was grappling with how to write about regeneration policy that was more than just going “oooh, it’s bad and neo-liberal” and also write in an ethnographic way. It was in The Dispossessed that LeGuin’s background in anthropology (her parents were anthropologists) really shone through for me. She deftly used the otherness created by the genre of sci-fi to bring into sharp relief the problems, and benefits, of both the capitalist planet and its revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist moon. This helped me grapple with the fact my policy ethnography had to reveal the difficult ethical and moral decisions all actors in a policy process were making and try and draw out a compromise of “what’s the best thing to do in the situation we find ourselves in” – driving be towards Habermas’ pragmatics that still frame a lot of my thinking in policy studies.

I then delved into The Lathe of Heaven just as I was finishing up my thesis. This was brilliant for me then – this is what my policy-makers were trying to do! The utopianism of both social democratic policy and managerialism was trying to create a perfect world from their dreams without thinking of the consequences. The best bit for me was when the scientist got rid of races to get rid of racism and the world then became incredibly dull. For me, at this time, this really spoke to policies that were trying to normalise all neighbourhoods rather than accepting difference between deprived and affluent neighbourhoods and working within that frame. It also helped me further get to grips with what good ethnography (particularly policy ethnography) is trying to do – to reveal the absurdities in the taken-for-granted, such as the way in which people act within a “partnership” meeting, compared to the differing ways in which partnership was understood by the people round the table, a point I elaborate in this paper.

Over the years I worked my way through virtually all her books, including the dodgy fourth book in the Earthsea trilogy. She is one of the few authors I have re-read. I read both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed within the last eighteen months. Funnily enough, my views from my previous readings were reversed – I found the dichotomy in The Dispossessed quite clunky, and the exploration of gender and binary divisions in The Left Hand of Darkness (plus the drama of the escape) utterly enthralling. I think this was because I am now much more attuned to issues of gender. Re-reading them also reminded me of my dream from when I first started reading her books – to run a postgraduate module on The Policy Analysis of Ursula K LeGuin.

I also think LeGuin, along with J.G Ballard (read Vermillion Sands), was one of the best short-story writers I’d read. Her wonderful short collection Changing Planes is extremely witty, and whenever I find myself spending a little too much time in an airport departure lounge I think of its central conceit with a wry smile, and a wish that I could change planes!

So, I am very upset that LeGuin has died – as a friend commented, 88 seems very young these days. But I am so glad her writing could be part of my life. Her work opened up the world of sci-fi to me, revealing what the best sci-fi, the best ethnography, and the best policy analysis do – make you look at the world askance.

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