Le Guin & Humanity

I came across an article by Keith N. Hull that broaches on a recurring question in SF, a theme we discussed in class and focuses on works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Its main question is “how do we define humanity?”

There’s often been a duality of behaviour vs. appearance in SF and here Hull refers to The Time Traveller by H.G. Wells, wherein humanity has split into two races: the Eloi that look like us, live outside and have virtually no intellect, versus the Morlocks, the undergound-living, albino beings who think like us and only come out to feed on the Eloi (eerily similar to my past life as an undergrad…) He also argues that our current state of science and technology presses us to answer this question with popular issues as artificial intelligence, abortion, etc.

He praises Le Guin’s intricate explorations of humankind and attributes it to her interests in social sciences, psychology, anthropology and history. He then moves on to say that “One of the most important lessons in LeGuin’s novels is that humanity is a broader, deeper entity than we ordinarily think and that the definition of humanity requires constant expansion as our experience broadens” (Hull, 71).

Using Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, The Word for World is Forest, City of Illusions, Planet of Exile, Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed as examples, but focusing on the latter two, he finds she perpetually challenges our preconceptions. In Left Hand of Darkness, she presents a people who have the periodical mating rites of animals, but are more evolved then us by the abolition of gender classes and the absence of sexual violence and non-consensual sex. College sports culture: please take a note! In The Dispossessed, she explores how the communities defining humanity often invites racial discrimination – which is certainly mirrored in the Americas’ history with marginalized groups…

Do you think any of these concepts relate to our Le Guin readings? SPOILER: THEY DO. How do you think our definitions of humanity are challenged in Nine Lives and The Matter of Seggri?

Hull, Keith N. “What Is Human? Ursula Le Guin and Science Fiction’s Great Theme.”MFS Modern Fiction Studies 32.1 (1986): 65-74. Print.

The article is available through the UO Library website if you want to check it out!

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One response to “Le Guin & Humanity

  • cstabile

    What counts as human is certainly a general concern of much SF — the borderlands between human and non-human are a playground for exploring these issues. But it’s interesting to compare masculinist variations on this theme with some of the feminist SF we’re reading. Think of this brilliant moment in Russ’s “When It Changed,” when the men are questioning Janet about Whileaway:

    “Where are all the people?” said that monomaniac.

    I realized then that he did not mean people, he meant “men,” and he was giving the word the meaning it had not had on Whileaway for six centuries. (1972)

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