Narrative, Fiction and World-Building Reality
October 4, 2019 2:46 AM   Subscribe

Ursula K. Le Guin's Revolutions - "Le Guin's work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living."
“Imaginative fiction trains people to be aware that there other ways to do things, other ways to be; that there is not just one civilization, and it is good, and it is the way we have to be,” Le Guin says in Arwen Curry’s new documentary, The Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.[1,2,3,4] Le Guin spoke in defense of science fiction and fantasy, which were and often still are maligned or outright ignored by critics. But her statement admits another, deeper necessity: We must be trained to imagine.

But imagine what? ... A feminist and a critic of capitalism, Le Guin must have known that progress was as much a necessity as it was an uncertainty. Nobody knows exactly what will happen when they set out to do what no one else has ever done. Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living. She did not just believe that a society free of consumerism and incarceration, like Shevek’s homeworld, could exist; she explored how that society could be built and understood the process would be hard work, and probably on some level disappointing. The future is not a static thing; to its architects, it is always in motion, always mid-creation, never realized.

Le Guin’s utopianism perhaps explains why her characters exhibit a certain adaptability, as did Le Guin herself. In her work, she mostly eschewed great battles; a reader of her work should not expect to find a clash at Helm’s Deep. A Le Guin character may be at war with his basest self, but the health of the body politic can be at stake at the same time. In The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai only completes his mission to bring Winter into the Ekumen after he overcomes his own prejudicial beliefs about the people who live there.

Le Guin found herself embroiled in a similar struggle, which she recounts to Curry. As acclaimed as The Left Hand of Darkness became, feminists criticized it because, while Le Guin’s alien race changed genders, in their default state they used male pronouns. Genly is male, too. “At first I felt a little bit defensive,” she told Curry. “But as I thought about it, I began to see that my critics were right.” There’s a quiet radicalism about her admission.
Yuval Noah Harari & Natalie Portman - "Yuval Noah Harari sits down with the award-winning actress, director, and Harvard graduate Natalie Portman to discuss his new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century."[5]
0:57 The myth factory
2:22 The role of fictions
4:38 Fictions and co-operation
Balance of power: The Economic Consequences of the Peace at 100 - "Ann Pettifor finds astonishing contemporary resonance in John Maynard Keynes's critique of globalization and inequity."[6]
In December 1919, John Maynard Keynes published a blistering attack on the Treaty of Versailles, signed in June that year. The treaty’s terms helped to end the First World War. Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace[(fre)eBook] revealed how they would also pave the way to the Second...

This is a bold, eloquent work unafraid of the long view. It contributed to the economic stability of the mid-twentieth century. And in a world still grappling with the socio-economic and environmental costs of globalization, Keynes’s critiques — not least of the era’s international financial system, the gold standard — remain powerfully germane.[7]

Keynes censures the disregard of world leaders for the “starving and disintegrating” people of war-torn Europe. “The future life of Europe was not their concern; its means of livelihood was not their anxiety,” he wrote. Keynes, however, was concerned for Europe’s future. His book’s significance lies in his revolutionary plan for financing recovery not just in Europe, but across the world.

Keynes called for a new international economic order to replace the gold standard, which had held from the 1870s until the start of the war. That system had led to a form of globalization that benefited the wealthy, but impoverished the majority and ultimately destabilized both the financial and political systems...

For a book published 100 years ago, the contemporary resonance is unsettling. Keynes writes: “England still stands outside Europe. Europe’s voiceless tremors do not reach her ... But Europe is solid with herself.” In another passage, he notes that the “principle of accumulation based on inequality was a vital part of the pre-war order of society”. And in an era innocent of Amazon and containerized shipping, Keynes wrote that wealthy Londoners could order by telephone “the various products of the whole earth” and expect “their early delivery” to their doorstep. The globalized pre-First World War economy was the template for the modern one.

Driven as it was by the international financial sector, the consequences of this economic system were predictable: rising inequality, economic instability, political volatility and war. Thus, a bankrupt Germany and its allies (the Central Powers) — all heavily indebted sovereign governments — were to endure increasingly frequent economic crises after 1919. Their creditors, the victorious Allied Powers, made no effort towards a sound and just resolution of these crises.[8,9,10]
Now's the time to spread the wealth, says Thomas Piketty - "His premise is that inequality is a political choice. It's something societies opt for, not an inevitable result of technology and globalisation. Whereas Marx saw history as class struggle, Piketty sees it as a battle of ideologies."[11]
Every unequal society, he says, creates an ideology to justify inequality. That allows the rich to fall asleep in their town houses while the homeless freeze outside.

In his overambitious history of inequality from ancient India to today’s US, Piketty recounts the justifications that recur throughout time: “Rich people deserve their wealth.” “It will trickle down.” “They give it back through philanthropy.” “Property is liberty.” “The poor are undeserving.” “Once you start redistributing wealth, you won’t know where to stop and there’ll be chaos” — a favourite argument after the French Revolution. “Communism failed.” “The money will go to black people” — an argument that, Piketty says, explains why inequality remains highest in countries with historic racial divides such as Brazil, South Africa and the US.

Another common justification, which he doesn’t mention, is “High taxes are punitive” — as if the main issue were the supposed psychology behind redistribution rather than its actual effects.

All these justifications add up to what he calls the “sacralisation of property”. But today, he writes, the “propriétariste and meritocratic narrative” is getting fragile. There’s a growing understanding that so-called meritocracy has been captured by the rich, who get their kids into the top universities, buy political parties and hide their money from taxation.

Moreover, notes Piketty, the wealthy are overwhelmingly male and their lifestyles tend to be particularly environmentally damaging. Donald Trump — a climate-change-denying sexist heir who got elected president without releasing his tax returns — embodies the problem...

Centre-right parties across the west have taken up populism because their low-tax, small-state story wasn’t selling any more. Rightwing populism speaks to today’s anti-elitist, anti-meritocratic mood.

However, it deliberately refocuses debate from property to what Piketty calls “the frontier” (and others would call borders). That leaves a gap in the political market for redistributionist ideas. We’re now at a juncture much like around 1900, when extreme inequality helped launch social democratic and communist parties.
Ideological differences in the expanse of the moral circle - "Do clashes between ideologies reflect policy differences or something more fundamental? The present research suggests they reflect core psychological differences such that liberals express compassion toward less structured and more encompassing entities (i.e., universalism), whereas conservatives express compassion toward more well-defined and less encompassing entities (i.e., parochialism)."[12,13,14,15,16,17]
  • In Our Time, The Rapture - "Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the idea that believers will vanish from the world, touching on religious entrepreneurialism, William Miller, dispensational modernism, premillennialism, and other such eschatological battiness."
  • Medieval cannibal babies - "How a collective of intellectuals can engage in the production of unlikely stories to protect a cherished theory."
  • Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why? - "'Not religious' has become a specific American identity—one that distinguishes secular, liberal whites from the conservative, evangelical right."[18,19]
Zadie Smith: Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction - "I could never shake the suspicion that everything about me was the consequence of a series of improbable accidents—not least of which was the 400 trillion–to-one accident of my birth. As I saw it, even my strongest feelings and convictions might easily be otherwise, had I been the child of the next family down the hall, or the child of another century, another country, another God."[20]

We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin - "Her novels imagine other worlds, but her theory of fiction can help us better live in this one."[21]
“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,”[pdf] an essay Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. And besides, Le Guin writes, the idea that the spear came before the vessel doesn’t even make sense. “Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food.”

Not only is the carrier bag theory plausible, it also does meaningful ideological work — shifting the way we look at humanity's foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing. Because I am, despite my best efforts, often soppy and sentimental, I sometimes imagine this like a really comforting group hug. But it’s not, really: the carrier bag holds things, sure, but it’s also messy and sometimes conflicted. Like when you’re trying to grab your sunglasses out of your bag, but those are stuck on your headphones, which are also tangled around your keys, and now the sunglasses have slipped into that hole in the lining.

Le Guin’s carrier bag is, in addition to a story about early humans, a method for storytelling itself, meaning it’s also a method of history. But unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff. One thing is entangled with another, and with another. Le Guin once described temporality in her Hainish Universe (a confederacy of human planets that feature in a number of her books) in the most delightfully psychedelic terms: “Any timeline for the books of Hainish descent would resemble the web of a spider on LSD.”

This lack of clear trajectory allowed Le Guin to test out all kinds of political eventualities, without the need to tie everything neatly together. It makes room for complexity and contradiction, for difference and simultaneity. This, I think, is a pretty radical way of looking at the world, one that departs from the idea of history as a long line of victories. Le Guin describes her discovery of the carrier bag theory as grounding her “in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before.” The stick, sword, or spear, designed for “bashing and killing,” alienated her from history so much that she felt she “was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all.”

The only problem is that a carrier bag story isn’t, at first glance, very exciting. “It is hard to tell”, writes Le Guin, “a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then I scratched my gnat bites, and Ool said something funny, and we went to the creek and got a drink and watched newts for a while, and then I found another patch of oats...”

As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account. The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?


We will not “beat” climate change, nor is “nature” our adversary. If the planet could be considered a container for all life, in which everything — plants, animals, humans — are all held together, then to attempt domination becomes a self-defeating act. By letting ourselves “become part of the killer story,” writes Le Guin, “we may get finished along with it.” All of which is to say: we have to abandon the old story.[22]
Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow Has Arrived - "A thought-provoking excursion into the futures we would and would not want to live in."[23]
posted by kliuless (10 comments total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
I need this so much right now. Can't wait to dive in! Thanks.
posted by allthinky at 3:52 AM on October 4, 2019

Love Le Guin, Lathe Of Heaven is in my top ten rereadable and inspiring books of all time, and the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction and her integration of Taoist thinking into her work is what informs my methodical attempt at writing the kind of science fiction novel I'd most want to read.
posted by sonascope at 5:31 AM on October 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have been planning some rereads of Le Guin, so this is nicely timed. I love her books but haven't read any of them in quite some time and it will be interesting to reread with fresh eyes.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:02 AM on October 4, 2019

Thanks for this! Bookmarking for reading later!
posted by toastyk at 7:30 AM on October 4, 2019

What a fantastic post, my Friday is lost. Thank you!
posted by simra at 7:45 AM on October 4, 2019

I am grateful to my Mom for many things, but introducing me to Le Guin is definitely among them. (Also please note that Dustin’s awesome girlfriend in season 3 of Stranger Things is reading LeGuin when he calls!)
posted by genmonster at 9:35 AM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

kliuless, this is an excellent post, outstanding among your long history of excellent posts. I am impressed by your deft circle from Le Guin to other imaginings and other fictions and back again. You've crafted a wonderful collecting of ideas together.

I am looking forward to thinking more about the Siobhan Leddy piece ("We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin"). As I read your excerpt about how "a carrier bag story isn’t, at first glance, very exciting," I immediately thought: but that's fine! Lately I don't want stories that are exciting - I just want to spend time with people I like. I love episodic television, because it lets me spend lots of time with people I like. I don't especially care what happens on the Enterprise or what adventures Doctor Who gets up to - I just want to hang out with Picard, and the Doctor and her awesome companions. I am rewatching Detectorists and I would really have to stop and think to describe the plots much; I just like hanging out in the English countryside with Andy and Lance.

A carrier bag can hold all those stories and all those people. It doesn't have to be all excitement all the time; it's just nice to have with you, full of memories and options and ideas and feelings.

Thank you for this, kliuless.
posted by kristi at 9:46 AM on October 4, 2019 [7 favorites]

Have you ever noticed that while everyone says Ursula Le Guin got better and better as a writer and thinker, 100% of what people talk about in her novels comes from the late 1960s (LHOD), the first half of the '70s, and the early '80s (ACH and essays)? One of these days I'd like to see someone write an article about her work that centers stuff like Four Ways To Forgiveness or Gifts. It may be that as her writing got deeper and more complex, she moved from strongly-imagined big SF ideas -- that were written with more nuance & thoughtfulness than most other science fiction novels -- to worlds which started out so nuanced and thoughtful and complex that it's hard to point to one of them and say "Look! No Gender Planet!" or "Anarchism."
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 11:06 AM on October 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

-opening lines, The Dispossessed
posted by doctornemo at 7:37 PM on October 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

As I read your excerpt about how "a carrier bag story isn't, at first glance, very exciting," I immediately thought: but that's fine! Lately I don't want stories that are exciting - I just want to spend time with people I like.

i guess 'easy-mode' gaming is kinda like that, too? or slow tv? also reminds me of this review: Leisurely, layered and subtly comic: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remains first-class TV
Tinker Tailor was also leisurely. Compared to the frantic pace and choppy editing of many dramas today, it took its time to explore the nuances. [Alec] Guinness, for example, might do nothing for five minutes save polish his spectacles. We saw a lot of blue cigarette smoke, artfully swirling towards the ceiling.

What was being conveyed was people thinking, people coming to terms with the shock of crimes committed long ago, which were only just coming to light, as Smiley pieces together clues about the spy concealed within their ranks.
or this: "My offspring recently made me watch Thor: Ragnarok. I hate myself for saying this, but the middle third or so, mostly the scenes with Thor, Loki, and Hulk/Banner, were, honestly, among the most entertaining things I've seen in a movie in ages." :P
posted by kliuless at 6:19 AM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

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