“A Novelist’s Business is Lying”: What SciFi Can Do by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan penguinWhen a re-encountered the books as an adult, I was thoroughly won over by Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea Cycle. I tend to write about writers who are rooted in deep worldviews. It is not that every good book is so planted. Harry Potter is not good because J.K. Rowling is drawing out of deep pools; her worldview is tepid, though not insubstantial. Rowling is successful because she created a thoroughly integrated speculative world where heroes and heroines we all love struggle against a a moral background we all know. While there are many great books in such a vein, the ones worth writing about are the ones that either uproot the reader’s worldview or invite the reader into a world that echoes the writer’s world.

Ursula K. Le Guin does both.

Le Guin is as rooted in her feminist worldview as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Douglas Adams, Holly Black, Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman are in their various worldviews. Over the five books of the Earthsea Cycle, and over the 40 years that Le Guin wrote them, the fictional world of Earthsea remains stable, but the silence of women becomes unsatisfying. Arha slowly discovers her voice. She has quite a voice, in the end.

left-hand-of-darkness-ursula-k-le-guin newGiven our current social conversation about gender and sexuality, it would not surprise me if Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) has a significant recovery. Like all of her books, The Left Hand asks questions of gender roles using the “supposal” method of fantasy writing that C.S. Lewis used so well. Lewis asked, “suppose a Christ-saviour came to a land of talking beasts, what would it be like?” As a result we have Aslan. In The Left Hand Le Guin asks, “suppose there were an alien race who had impermanent sex, so that both sex and gender was fluid, how would an anthropologist like my father write about them?” It is a powerful and intriguing question, and The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards when it was released.

Le Guin is a provocative writer, and not all agree with her. Like Tolkien, she has the ability to elevate prose to literary fiction and world-building to an exquisite art. Like Lewis, though, she has the ability to look at the world upside-down. This quote, from a recent BBC interview, shows her inversive quality:

“I am a man. Now, you may think I made some silly mistake about gender or maybe that I’m trying to fool you because my first name ends in “a” or I have three bras or I’ve been pregnant five times…. When I was born, there were actually only men. People were men. They all had only one pronoun. His pronoun. So that’s who I am: I am the generic ‘he’….”

Ursula-La-Guin left hand of darknessThere are doubtless bad feminist writers. I found Suzy McKee Charnas to be a mess; her Walk to the End of the World was especially painful to read. There are moments when I think Margaret Atwood pushes the message a little too far, as in (my favourite) her Post-apocalyptic Trilogy. And Atwood is the master, so much is forgiven. But any author who is deeply rooted in a personal story is in danger of bending the story to his or her message. This is why I think Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy–as brilliant as it is in many ways–ultimately fails as an anti-Narnian fantasy: because it tries to be an anti-Narnian fantasy rather than the humble goal of being a great book.

We all know of authors who pushed their message too far into their works. Some think C.S. Lewis did this with Narnia. But in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin gives us another warning: writers are in the business of lying. Perhaps she is drawing upon Picasso, who said that

“Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.”

Ursula-La-Guin left hand of darkness softEven more shocking, considering she is a writer of future-based science fiction, Le Guin argues that SF writers are not predicting the future. They tell the present, what they see now. It is part of the grand deception of storytelling.

More than this, the reader takes part in the deception:

“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.”

It is such a beautifully crafted, intriguing, and self-contradictory couple of pages that I thought it was worth quoting in full. The worldview-rooted writer will see in these words the quiet warning about pushing the message too far, or allowing the supposal to become a bully pulpit. We are all left with these great questions: what is it that we do when we write fantasy? how do we go about telling a story? what happens when we step off the ledge of reality and take up a book?

A Novelist’s Business…

Ursula-ki La-Guin left hand of darknessScience fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why many people who do not read science fiction describe it as “escapist,” but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because “it’s so depressing.”

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.
Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

ursula k leguin Left hand of darknessThis book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

ursula le_guin youngPredictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists.

A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like.

I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.

“The truth against the world!”—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say,

There! That’s the truth!

They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies.

Ursula-LaGuin left hand of darknessThey may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology; and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalisable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?

But our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists.

I do not say that artists cannot be seers, inspired: that the awen cannot come upon them, and the god speak through them. Who would be an artist if they did not believe that that happens? if they did not know it happens, because, they have felt the god within them use their tongue, their hands? Maybe only once, once in their lives. But once is enough.

Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in numbers as well as in words.

Ursula-La-GuinBut it is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact which is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.

Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number—Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.

I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.

Oh, it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake.

I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.

This book is not about the future. Yes, it begins by annnouncing that it’s set in the “Ekumenical Year 1490-97,” but surely you don’t believe that?

Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies.

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.

Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words . The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound—a fact the linguistic positivists take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect).

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor.

What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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28 Responses to “A Novelist’s Business is Lying”: What SciFi Can Do by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. jubilare says:

    “They tell the present, what they see now. It is part of the grand deception of storytelling.” Love this quote!

    “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.” this one is also brilliant. I thin I need to stow that one away and mull it over.

    There is a lot to chew on, here. Thank you for sharing it! I don’t quite agree with everything she says (but that’s not unusual, as I almost never agree with anyone, being contrary by nature 😉 ) but I love the insight and the point of view that makes one think.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Slightly off topic, but it’s interesting how age can bring a completely different perspective on a book, or, in this case, a trilogy – I’ve always thought of the first three books in the Earthsea series as a discrete body of work, perhaps because of the lapse of time between the trilogy and the subsequent two books. As a teenager, I found ‘The Tombs of Atuan’ visually dreary, as well as visually inconsistent with the other two books, and I’m not sure I understood what it was about. Reading the trilogy again, I felt it to be the strongest book of the three – Sparrowhawk’s travails are the stuff of myth, which in turn makes him something of a cypher, whereas Tenar/Arha’s situation and epiphany are both very real (a parallel might be with a child growing up in the shadow of the Third Reich) ie: what if the very thing you have been taught to revere turns out to be evil?


    • I wrote somewhere that I found Atuan overwhelmingly dark as a child, but brilliant as an adult. I went back and forth on the 1st two books: I still like Ged’s journey, his youth and discovery and the Dantean land of the dead.
      Arha–she is in the shadow of evil. BUt it is insipid, isn’t it–in that shadow there has never been sun. So more like if the 3rd Reich had brought it all to a draw.


  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I suppose – for the purposes of the story – Ged is a force for good? The tombs collapse in on themselves after he and Arha leave, suggesting some sort of victory.


  4. L.A. Smith says:

    I’ve never read Ursula K. Le Guin, at least I don’t think so. I read so many books during my childhood/teen/young adult years it’s hard to say for certain! Obviously, if I did, it didn’t stick with me. I tend to stay away from science fiction, although there are some science fiction writers I have enjoyed (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, for example). But I loved your thoughts here about the dangers of inserting a message too deeply into a novel – oh, I have read far too many of those books! Ugh. I really loved her essay here, thanks for including it. Much food for thought.


  5. Steve says:

    I liked Ursula le Guin’s fantasy better than her sf, though I haven’t read The left hand of darkness. I read The lathe of heaven and The word for world is forest.

    But I liked the Earthsea trilogy better. I’ve read it three times, and I liked it less each time. I thought it was wonderful the first time I read it. The second time it seemed that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. And the third time it seemed rather boring. The third time I read it there was also a fourth book added, Tehanu, and I found it excruciatingly boring, even on first reading.

    The books obviously haven’t changed, so it must be that I have changed, or else the books (at least the first three) are books to be read just once.

    I’ve read Pullman’s His dark materials trilogy twice, and I liked it better the second time. On first reading, I thought it got progressively worse, and ended in bathos — after ranting against Christian asceticism the whole way through, Will and Lyra finally opt for something very similar to it. But, unlike Ursula le Guin’s work, on second reading it wasn’t as bad as I remembered it.


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  23. keebslac1234 says:

    I once encountered a person older than me in a leadership role in my county who said the only thing he read was history, that fiction wasn’t true. At that time, I wish I had had the heart and knowledge to argue that history, so some degree, is fiction, at best a snapshot of a moment in time. I can only shudder to think of the fallout if I had thrown up Ursu;a K. Le Guin’s thoughts on fiction.
    The practice of framing reality with words, some endeavoring to simulate the conditions of the past and present, others to peer into the future, is shot through with promise and danger. Therefore, I read, sometimes aloud, with great interest, knowing that an artist can reshape what I think I know and set me to thinking (and imagining).
    Brendan, this entry, and Le Guin’s mischief, was well taken.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A nice note! That’s great–and a transformation that I discovered had happened in me, to see fiction and truths on multiple levels.
      Moreover, if someone is an honest history reader, they know they are only getting a small slice of the millions of “facts” happening at any one moment. Thus, a history book is never more than one person’s story–though they can be better and worse at that.


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