hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting: missing Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin has died. I walk around my house looking for her book of short stories that my partner brought home one day this summer. I can’t find it, so I end up searching the bookshelves and the books piled on the tables and in the corners of our apartment. Which, in the end, turns into pacing back and forth, feeling grief twist in my chest.

There are so many ways to begin to talk about Le Guin as a writer. Novels, speeches, essays, interviews, short stories, criticism, children’s literature. Her reach and writing were, as many have said, legendary, and you can read about her, and read her words, in so many places. Like so many great writers, her works gave us back to ourselves, changed after reading. I’ve loved so many of her novels and essays, but for me, she will always start with her stories.

I read and reread “The Unreal and the Real,” an edition of her collected science fiction/fantasy stories, over and over again this year. An escape from the banal, casual brutality of the current moment into worlds that offered not an absence of conflict or a promise of utopia, but visions of balance, otherness, possibility. The kind of worlds that still feel fantastical, but without the saccharine unreality of utopia, which has felt especially laughable/painful this year. And something darker, too: at times over the past few months I have felt like we are in the process of watching a political regime use the tools of previous administrations to build the kind of “great” utopia that would be for so few of us, contain so few parts of what makes the world beautiful, funny, and wondrous.

I remember reading “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in college — or high school; either way, too soon in my growth as a person for me to understand the full weight of that story. I reread it this year, in the first few pages in this collection. The simultaneous depth and slightness of the world of Omelas, that mirrors this world as much now as it did when Le Guin first wrote it. But I had changed in the ten years since I first read it. I had grown up and felt some of the heaviness of William James’ original question about whether one person’s lonely torment would be worth the happiness of millions. Whether we could knowingly make such a choice, and what that choosing might do to us. I had learned enough about the world to feel horror at my own complicated and simple choices, usually toward convenience, that entangled me in the world’s brutalization and violence.

I felt, also, in this reading, the ways those who choose to walk away from a society they could no longer live in carry the knowledge of their past with them; you can leave, but you will always remember what you left behind, what you were capable of in the time you spent living there, and the bargain you will forever be implicated in.

But the story that stuck with me most, and fills my mind now, as I reread the collection again, is “The Shobies’ Story;” a story about a new kind of space travel and the first crew’s experimental journey on their ship, the Shoby. The crew, who in their world’s tradition have named themselves after the ship, will be using an instantaneous, newly discovered space travel called Churten Theory. Churten Theory is based on some impenetrable inter-galactic physics that various characters attempt to explain at several points in the story; explanations that leave everyone more confused than before. The crew aren’t quite clear on how it might actually work; but what does seem especially important is that the crew know exactly how churtening is supposed to work before they attempt their journey. The confusion is partly a problem of language and new ways of thinking, further complicated by the need for a group of individuals to all have the same understanding of something completely unfamiliar.

The trip happens; and things go wrong, of course. None of the communication systems from the ship back to the launch site work; the consensus-based communication between crew members breaks down. Individuals in the previously well-bonded crew begin to isolate, stepping away from their roles and from each other, unsure of what of their perceptions they can trust. Nothing is at it seems.

When everything seems at its breaking point, and the members of the crew are lost both in physical space/time and in their own minds, they come back together around a fire in den of the ship, and one by one begin to tell the stories of what they experienced and thought they experienced. And, piece by piece, together, they tell the single, multi-perceptional story of the Shoby’s journey. In doing so they literally (is that the right word here? Physically, and perceptionally, then) find their way back to their launch site, that it seems they may have never left, even as they have traveled millions of light years away and vanished from forty-four minutes prior to their return.

I love this story because reading it gave me the experience of my brain scrambling to understand something that feels so close and at the same time totally out of reach. Like learning new Theory, or falling in love. It’s a beautiful example of Le Guin’s way of telling a story — her stories often describing worlds or ways of being that are so alien, so alternate, that they are almost incomprehensible. And at the same time, the key in the heart of “The Shobies’ Story” is one of the simplest, oldest things we have: telling stories. This story reminds us that our stories can bring us together or break us apart, give us an understanding of the possible or pull it out of reach. It reminds us that we must tell them together, and to each other, for our individual experiences to have any meaning. Le Guin reminded us, over and over, in her stories, her novels, her interviews, and her speeches, including in her 2014 National Book Award address:

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries, realists of a larger reality.”

We have lost a rare writer and public intellectual who could do those things, in a time when we need her so desperately. There will be others who can see a larger reality, but no more of her, and that loss, that ending, hurts.

Rest in possibility, exasperated, exacting, brilliant visionary.