Workable Utopias: Le Guin & Utopia

This January saw the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin, one of science fiction’s most influential voices. It is a sorrow and a joy to remember her in this first issue of the Workable Utopias Newsletter. The Workable Utopias project would not exist without Le Guin. Of all the influences that have shaped my view of the utopian potential of human society, no other approaches hers.

Le Guin is well known for popularizing the idea of “an ambiguous utopia,” the subtitle of her 1974 science fiction novel, The Dispossessed, which explores an anarchist society. An ambiguous utopia is a society with obvious utopian elements: a good society, if you will, arguably better than ours by many measures. But like any endeavor created by humans, an ambiguous utopia will be flawed. The great realization of Le Guin’s utopian impulse, which sets it apart from the 19th and early 20th century heyday of utopian literature, is that utopias do not have to be—and cannot be—ideal. To attempt to solve every pain of living would, at best, result in a lobotomized, mechanistic society like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s all right, Le Guin tells us, for a society to have shortcomings. It’s even all right for individuals’ lives to be marked by personal pain. That’s living. But we can imagine and create systems that tend toward health, balance, and sustainability, and generally produce mature, self-aware individuals.

Four Ways to Forgiveness CoverLe Guin’s parents were anthropologists who studied Native American societies. And while she came of white settler descent, her attitudes toward human societies are much informed by Tribal models. She does not write from the perspective of a Native American, but in a global society in which indigenous voices are often ignored, her voice highlights the need to listen to these primary ways of understanding how to organize human life.

The center of Le Guin’s utopian imagination is the Hainish civilization that founds the Ekumen, a loose interstellar collective whose goal is to learn from other societies to enhance human understanding. Hain and other early members of the Ekumen are ancient societies, stable, peaceful, ecologically sound, and traditional. Yet they are also scientifically advanced and open new experience. In Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995), Le Guin describes this paradox as an awareness of “local knowledge” and “historical and scientific knowledge” (146-47), an ability to be simultaneously grounded in one’s home tribe while understanding that, in other contexts, broader and multiple truths exist.

I have found no better conception for addressing the core problem of modernity. How can we achieve stability and cohesion in a world that also requires a cosmopolitan openness to change and difference? We must find a place for both domains, the local and the global, the home culture and human family. I keep this in my head all the time when I think from a workable utopian perspective. This powerful realization I owe to Ursula Le Guin.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Four Ways to Forgiveness, HarperPrism, 1995.

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