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Hard ReadingLearning from Science Fiction$

Tom Shippey

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781781382615

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9781781382615.001.0001

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Serious Issues, Serious Traumas, Emotional Depth

(p.182) 10 Introduction
Hard Reading

Tom Shippey

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The relationship of science fiction to anthropological theory is further exemplified, in this chapter, by the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, herself the daughter of two famous anthropologists, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber. The first three volumes of Le Guin’s “Earthsea” trilogy once again place magic within the framework of her parents’ discipline. Her work moreover considers the relationship of magic to ancient myth, and also (as in Frazer’s Golden Bough) to religious belief and ritual, all of these considered with a mixture of criticism and sympathy. Le Guin manages the difficult feat of being at once iconoclastic and mythopoeic.

Keywords:   Anthropological theory, Alfred Kroeber, Theodora Kroeber, Magic, Myth, Religious belief, Iconoclasm, Mythopoeia

Like the previous one, the essay that follows takes up the issue of the relationship between magic, science and religion, the famous triangle as proposed by Sir James Frazer, in which any two of the three terms are opposed to the third. Magic and science are manipulative, they are supposed to work, while religion is petitionary (a point made firmly by C.S. Lewis at the start of the fourth of the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, The Silver Chair (1953)). Meanwhile, magic and religion are regarded, by us, as ‘supernatural’, while science is ‘natural science’, two against one once more. The third two-against-one contrast is that religion and science are two powerful forces in the contemporary world, while magic has dwindled to being something only in the imagination, an entertainment.

And what has any of this got to do with science fiction, or fantasy even? There are two points I did not stress in this essay, but might have done if I had thought (or possibly, if I had known). One is that there is a good reason for relating Ursula Le Guin to anthropological theory, which is that she was brought up on it. She gives her own name as Ursula K. Le Guin, and the K. represents her maiden name, which is Kroeber: she is the daughter of two of the most prominent early-twentieth-century structural anthropologists, in the American Boasian tradition, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber. Even more than Jack Vance (see item 6, above) she is saturated in structural or cultural anthropology. Her The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) follows the established sf tradition of imagining a culture with radically different ground rules from our own, but does it semi-professionally, in that the novel incorporates some nine sections of anthropological field notes, which it is the job of the reader to relate to the main story (cognition and estrangement once again; see item 1). Her Always Coming Home (1985) goes even further in the same direction, adding music and myth to the presentation of an imagined culture, and indeed goes so far as to downgrade the sense of story – as do the later ‘Earthsea’ books, Tehanu (p.183) (1990), The Other Wind (2001) and Tales from Earthsea (2001), written many years after their predecessors.

The other point is one I find myself making with increasing stridency, usually with reference to Tolkien, but it applies here as well, and to much of sf too. It is that literary critics are still prone to writing off fantasy and sf as escapist, not serious, not concerned with real life, etc., whereas for most of the human species last century – apart from the small, privileged, sheltered, literary coteries of Britain and America – the serious issues were precisely those dealt with in fantasy and sf. The main ones last century were industrialised warfare and the corruptions of power (see Tolkien), and we hope very much that they will not be the main issues of this century too. Another vital question, tackled by authors from Wells onwards (see item 2, above), is whether a sense of morality can co-exist with belief in evolution by natural selection (which means, to be frank, ‘over-produce and cull’). A third is the relationship between nature and culture (see Vance and Le Guin again), but many others as well – there are few sf authors entirely unconcerned with it. And then there is the question of life and death, which is the centre of the ‘Earthsea’ books discussed here. How does one manage in the aftermath of the great lapse of religious faith, everywhere in the Christian world outside North America, which dates back also to the nineteenth century? All these are very much more serious contemporary issues than the kind of thing I was made to write essays about as a Cambridge undergraduate: personal emotional development (E.M. Forster), fine distinctions of taste (Henry James), the impossibility of ever expressing anything adequately (T.S. Eliot), etc.

And sf surely tells us that this century is very likely to be worse! Which is more ‘escapist’, Pride and Prejudice or the ‘Earthsea’ trilogy? Not that I have anything against Pride and Prejudice, a work which has shown astonishing powers of survival. But the argument from seriousness and contemporary relevance goes just the other way, whatever Bridget Jones may say.

I would add that in my reading Ms Le Guin counts as one of the twentieth century’s ‘traumatised authors’. There are some clear cases among sf and fantasy authors, like Kurt Vonnegut, who was in Dresden the night the British fire-bombed it, or George Orwell, shot through the throat in the Spanish Civil War, or Tolkien, who went over the top with the Lancashire Fusiliers at the Somme, or William Golding, who commanded a rocket-firing ship on D-Day and then at the dreadful battle of Walcheren. Le Guin is not quite one of those, and her ‘trauma’ is perhaps inherited rather than personal. But her mother wrote what is I think the most awful book I ever read in my whole life, about ‘Ishi’, the (p.184) last sad free survivor of the genocidally destroyed natives of Northern California (I refuse to give a reference to it: take my warning, do not read it, certainly not the adult version). Ishi was not his real name, which he would not tell anyone, and see the essay that follows for the significance of that! But Theodora Kroeber’s account of his life and his people’s extinction seems to me to be at the bottom of what must be Le Guin’s most famous and most-anthologised short story, ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas’ (1973), a story which upsets everyone, not just me. This is what gives her work something that seems to me to be denied to many mainstream classics of last century: genuine emotional depth. That too can co-exist with sf and fantasy.