Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Ursula Le Guin!

Today is Ursula Le Guin’s 80th birthday – happy birthday, Ursula! She is, as far as I am aware, still hale and hearty, and new books in her distinctive veins of science-fiction and fantasy continue to emerge from the press – Lavinia, a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, being the latest (2008). Why, then, should Morrisians concern themselves with this festive occasion?

First, because Le Guin is the author of the most important utopia of our times, The Dispossessed (1974), which tells the tale of the physicist Shevek’s return journey from the troubled utopia of the moon Anarres to the decidedly dystopian capitalist home planet Urras. This rich book is surely the wisest and deepest of the 1970s generation of ‘critical utopias’ which Tom Moylan has rightly insisted have powerfully remade the genre for the late 20th and early 21st century.

We don’t yet have an adequate account of Le Guin’s relationship as utopian writer to William Morris and News from Nowhere, though there are some glances in this direction in Laurence Davis’s admirable collection, The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ (2005). Nor do we yet have a fully developed ‘Le Guinian’ reading of News from Nowhere itself, though my own hunch is that Shevek and his Syndicate of Initiative in The Dispossessed would tell us a great deal about where Ellen might politically end up in Morris’s utopia.

But there is another strong connection between Morris and Ursula Le Guin, for both are authors of remarkable fantasy fictions as well as utopias. In a very general sense, of course, all twentieth-century fantasy is indebted to that extraordinary series of late writings which Morris inaugurated with The Wood beyond the World in 1894. But the connections may be more specific and illuminating than that; for as John Purkis noted in 1994, ‘the Earthsea tetralogy of Ursula Le Guin … is far more worth reading [than Tolkien or C.S.Lewis] as an example of a distillation of Morrisian romance at its best’ (Morris Society Journal, 11.1, Autumn 1994, p.17).

Morrisians thus have good cause to celebrate the 80th birthday of Ms Le Guin and to wish her many more years of productive living and writing.


Alias Guenevere said...

I wish Happy Birthday to the innovator of science fiction ideas!

mo said...

I loved reading Ursula Le Guin as a child...thank you making this connection for me!