“Science fiction is social fiction,” Warren Ellis said in a 2013 interview in The Paris Review. “It’s about using speculation as a tool with which to examine the contemporary condition.”
Truer words. But even in 2018, when science fiction and fantasy have conquered popular entertainment, most genre creators still have to fight for recognition. “The ‘genre’ label,” says Michael Chabon in Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a new portrait of the Portland author, “can be a very useful tool for a critic who wants to dismiss a writer.” Decades ago, the challenges were even greater: “What Ursula was having to navigate,” notes Neil Gaimain, “was the societal prejudices against science fiction, against the fantastic, and against children’s fiction. All of these things were marginalized.”
Not only marginalized, but smeared with testosterone: When Le Guin began her career, genre literature was almost entirely the purview of male writers writing male characters. Thankfully, Le Guin became responsible for radically broadening what genre could be—she one of the key figures, Annalee Newitz says, of a literary vanguard that worked at “bringing in areas of scientific and cultural inquiry that hadn’t really been the purview of science fiction before.”
When Le Guin began her career, genre literature was almost entirely the purview of male writers writing male characters. Thankfully, Le Guin became responsible for radically broadening what genre could be.
Director Arwen Curry’s hour-long portrait of Le Guin is deeper and denser than its runtime would imply, thanks to a slew of introspective, passionate interviews with Le Guin and a murderer’s row of reverent figures from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy: There’s Chabon, Gaiman, and Newitz, but there's also Margaret Atwood, Samuel R. Delany, David Mitchell, China Miéville, Vonda N. McIntyre, and more.
Throughout, Le Guin seems utterly delighted to reexamine both her personal history and the relevance and purpose of her groundbreaking work, spanning from her earliest rejection letters to her towering novels like the Earthsea books and The Left Hand of Darkness as she and the doc's talking heads dig into topics ranging from race to imagination and from gender to teen wizards. Curry, meanwhile, cleanly places Le Guin’s work and time in the greater literary and cultural context—highlighting not only Le Guin's groundbreaking writing, but her fearless perspectives on everything from the pulp days of sci-fi to the cultural decimations of Amazon.
The result is an elegant, thoughtful doc that’ll prove eye-opening for both longtime Le Guin readers and those who are newcomers. And there will continue to be newcomers: Though we lost Le Guin earlier this year, her work continues to offer its eye-opening, perspective-altering power.
“I see my job as holding doors open, or opening windows,” Le Guin says in Worlds. “But who comes in and out the doors, what you see out the window… how do I know?”
Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin screens this weekend at the NW Film Center. Director in attendance; showtimes here.