Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ursula Le Guin and Anthropology

There was an interesting profile of Ursula Le Guin in today's LA Times. Le Guin's parents were both prominent anthropologists, and their work has in turn influenced her own.
Le Guin's early years help explain her abiding concern: Is there such a thing as a stable human nature? She grew up in Berkeley, the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, a founder of modern anthropology, and Theodora Kroeber, author of "Ishi in Two Worlds," about an American Indian who had outlived his tribe. Her childhood, which included summers at a family ranch in Napa, was full of reading, storytelling and visits from European intellectuals and Native Americans.

"I was privileged," she says, "to know the kind of people that most American kids, most bourgeois white kids, don't." She was raised "as irreligious as a jack rabbit."

Eric Rabkin, who teaches at the University of Michigan, sees her work as profoundly shaped by her exposure to alien cultures as well as her father's ambition to find as specifically as he could the time and place from which Western civilization had sprung. "There's a kind of romance to that view," Rabkin says. "That once upon a time, the worst antagonisms were merely inter-familial -- that basically we're all alike and trustworthy. And I believe she grew up in a family in which that was considered not a fantasy but a scientific fact."
[Note that I added the links to the excerpt above.]

While most of Le Guin's science fiction would be considered of the "soft" rather than "hard" variety, that doesn't mean that there is no science - or technology - in her work, as she aptly points out in this rant:
How can genuine science fiction of any kind lack technological content? Even if its principal interest isn't in engineering or how machines work — if like most of mine, it's more interested in how minds, societies, and cultures work — still, how can anybody make a story about a future or an alien culture without describing, implicitly or explicitly, its technology?

Nobody can. I can't imagine why they'd want to.

Its technology is how a society copes with physical reality: how people get and keep and cook food, how they clothe themselves, what their power sources are (animal? human? water? wind? electricity? other?) what they build with and what they build, their medicine - and so on and on. Perhaps very ethereal people aren't interested in these mundane, bodily matters, but I'm fascinated by them, and I think most of my readers are too.
Read the whole essay. I can't help but think that her ability to clearly explain how silly it is to limit "technology" to modern shiny gadgets has something to do with the anthropology in Le Guin's background. It's excellent food for thought.

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  1. Ursula Le Guin is absolutely correct! While my brother is the "rocket scientist" (aerospace engineer), I'm the daydreamer and writer. Still, there will always be some science and/or biology in science fiction stories. Can't imagine a science fiction that I've read that didn't have one or both. My recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal, is a romantic action adventure in space. I'm not certain how you write a science fiction story(either high-tech, futuristic, or fantasy) without a little science. This is especially true when explaining any society, i.e., how does this society live, work, and play.

    By the way, Ursula Le Guin didn't "rant" -- at least in my opinion!

  2. Le Guin is still one of my favorite authors (authors, period, not just SF). I couldn't agree more with her take on technology and its depiction in SF. Gadgets often act as smoke and mirrors to hide gaps in characters and plot -- and they can be death on style. In any fully realized world, just as it happens in our own real one, technology is embedded in people's lives, it doesn't glare and blare.


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