Ursula K. Le Guin, Interplanetary Anthropologist

Ursula K. Le Guin, Interplanetary Anthropologist

By Anand Pandian


Sometime early in the year 1980, Ursula K. Le Guin receives a fan letter. And yet the letter isn’t actually addressed to Le Guin, but instead to “Faxe,” a minor character in one of her most beloved books, The Left Hand of Darkness, first published in 1969. Inked with fine calligraphy onto several cream-colored sheets, the missive runs as follows—

Dear Faxe,

When I first read The Left Hand of Darkness some eight or nine years ago, I thought I heard the voice of your father, Alfred Kroeber, coaching you from the wings as you constructed the myths and stories, the crafts and ceremonies of Karhide into the nearly harmonious whole that marks a viable true culture (Orgoreyn never seemed so concrete, although I feel I know the Orgota better than the inhabitants of Seattle; but perhaps I expect too much of the people of Seattle – they should be as exciting, as stimulating, as awe-inspiring as the site they inhabit).

You made Karhide more real to me than, say, Hungary, a place I suppose to exist, though I have never been there; I feel as though I could find my way around the old capital of Rer more easily than around the old capital of Buda, no matter how confusing Genly found it.

The crossing of the Kargav still affects me much as my first crossing of the Cascades at Naches Pass, when Tahoma, that magic mountain, awed me into speechlessness when it suddenly loomed high above me.

I did not recognize the voice of your father speaking through Estraven, however, because you had camouflaged his appearance very well. It was only when I began to listen to Estraven as I was writing this letter that I recognized his ways of speaking.

Your father was a master of shifgrethor. I heard him blithely conceding to some Marxist students at Columbia the possibility that his hard-fought-out concepts of culture, culture area and what I am now calling the natural lifetimes of cultures (because I have forgotten what he called it) might well be in error; but in the process he exposed the peurility and the dogmatism of the Marxist preconceptions. I heard the same voice speaking to the Orgota Commensals at their banquets.

Perhaps you may be curious why I waited so long to write you. Well, it was because you seemed to have the numen of a Weaver wrapped around you, and I feared to disturb you for anything so trivial as a fan letter.

But yesterday I read The Language of the Night for the first time (I shall read, pore over, dissect, reassemble, fight and agree with parts of it many times more), and it reminded me that Faxe touches divinity only temporarily and is human most of the time.

The letter goes on like this, passing through many more of Le Guin’s works then closing with the words “Gratefully yours, Klod the Barbarian.” This signature, and the heading that inaugurates the letter – “To Elfland from Poughkeepsie” – both play on an essay in Le Guin’s Language of the Night (1979), in which the author describes fantasy as “surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality.” And indeed, this is precisely the way in which the Barbarian’s letter takes stock of one of the most famous filial ties between fiction and anthropology.

Le Guin becomes Faxe the Weaver, a figure “as limpid and unfathomable as a well of very clear water,” whose powers of prophecy convey an insight essential to storytelling and anthropology alike, that “the only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next” (Le Guin 1969). Alfred L. Kroeber, the distinguished anthropologist who was her father, assumes the visage of a nobleman of Le Guin’s fictional planet of Gethen, an adept at its games of political prestige or shifgrethor. Gethen’s nation of Karhide and its ancient capital Rer, the Orgota nation of Orgoreyn and the Commensals who run its government, the imposing Kargav mountain range and the journey the interplanetary envoy Genly Ai takes across it, all these things somehow seem more real, more concrete, more familiar even than the places shared by writers and readers on a planet known as Earth.

The letters to Le Guin held at the University of Oregon archives, where I stumbled across this one, reveal readers entranced by her prolific body of novels, poems, and essays. Striving for words writerly and engaging in their own right, correspondents sent her poetry, fiction of their own, drawings, missives in code and made-up languages, sometimes just exuberant prose. The letters convey the vividness of the places conjured up by Le Guin’s science fiction; as one fan wrote in 1972, “please keep dreaming alternative worlds. They make the one we are stuck in so much richer.” It is also striking how many of these readers discerned the anthropological spirit at work in her novels. As one young woman wrote from Switzerland, explaining why Le Guin had led her to study anthropology in Neuchatel, “with your books I have found out that science fiction is anthropology. To describe another world, it is learning about our own world.” What could it mean, to insist upon this likeness?

I first encountered Le Guin’s novels as an undergraduate at Amherst College. I went on to study anthropology at the UC Berkeley department founded by her father in 1901, passing in and out of Kroeber Hall each day. Kroeber’s closest Papago and Yurok collaborators would stay with his family at the Napa Valley ranch where they spent each summer in the 1930s and 1940s, and these daily experiences with her “Indian uncles,” Le Guin later recalled, gave her “the sense that nothing and no one is irredeemably foreign—alien—Other” (Baker-Cristales 2012).

In a lecture that she gave in the Berkeley anthropology department on the occasion of its 100th anniversary – a talk that I missed, as I was in south India for dissertation fieldwork at the time – the novelist acknowledged that “my memories of these two Native American friends are hedged with caution and thorned with fear,” for she knew almost nothing about their personal history and political condition. And yet, she reflected, matters as small as the discovery that birthdays meant nothing to these men, that time itself was different for them, may have been “the soil from which the cultural relativism of my fictions would grow and flourish” (Le Guin 2004).

Le Guin’s mother, Theodora Kroeber, immersed herself in the tragic story of another California native, Ishi, the subject of her bestselling book. Not surprisingly, with such heritage behind them, Le Guin’s books teem with anthropologists. Take, for example, her stories set in the “Hainish” universe of multiple human populations on far-flung planets, works that typically trail outsiders with anthropological curiosity about the people they have landed among. The first of her novels, Rocannon’s World tells the story of an interplanetary ethnographer, opening with his survey of “hominoid” species on the world of Fomalhaut II. A later book, The Dispossessed (1974) follows a physicist’s journey to a foreign planet where he often reflects on “what might be like to be on one’s own in a society where men did not trust one another, where the basic moral assumption was not mutual aid, but mutual aggression.”

As with ethnographers on Earth – or Terra, as our world is known here – these lonely figures serve at times as emissaries of a larger political order with murky ambitions, such as Captain Raj Lyubov in The Word for World is Forest, tasked with studying the diminutive natives of a verdant planet colonized for its timber resources. Some take on the work of salvage, characters like Sutty in The Telling (2000), who wrestles with the pace of change on a post-contact world, “to learn what I can about some of the old ways… the arts and beliefs and customs that flourished on Aka before my people came here.”

Alfred L. Kroeber’s anthropological engagement with “wrecks of cultures” on the frontiers of the American West, Le Guin acknowledged, was both “an act of imperialism” and “an act of human solidarity.” As a “granddaughter of the American frontier,” the novelist has described her own task as an effort “to listen to the voices from the other side” (Le Guin 2004). Think of what happens to the narrator of The Left Hand of Darkness, Genly Ai, charged with bringing the people of Gethen into an interplanetary alliance with remote, unseen worlds by appealing to “their strong though undeveloped sense of humanity, of human unity.”

For the Gethenians, whose uniquely cyclical makeup takes them gradually and continuously back and forth between male and female physiology, the alien Genly is at first “an oddity, a sexual freak,” dismissed as not even human because he remains so stubbornly male. But then after years of his sojourn among the Gethenians, it is his own shipmates from other worlds, with genders akin to ours, that now seem inhuman to him: “they all looked strange to me, men and women, well as I knew them. Their voices sounded strange: too deep, too shrill. They were like a troupe of great, strange animals, of two different species; great apes with intelligent eyes, all of them in rut.”

“Every understanding of another culture is an experiment with our own,” Roy Wagner wrote in The Invention of Culture (1981), an insight essential to the “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology. The endeavor indeed involves working with “fictions,” as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has put it in Cannibal Metaphysics (2014): not untruths as such, but the contrary realities that come into focus when starkly foreign ideas are taken to make sense, and their consequences followed through in earnest. “It is not the task of explaining the world of the other,” Viveiros de Castro writes, “but that of multiplying our world.”

We can see this happening quite profoundly with Le Guin’s novels and the place they assume in the lives of her fans and readers, in the imaginative possibilities they pull together and propel. And when we attend to their anthropological inflections, to the fate of the human in these stories, we may glimpse a moral project of empathy at work, one related in spirit to anthropology itself. “Science fiction,” as Le Guin once said, “allows me to help people get out of their cultural skins and into the skins of other beings” (Freedman 2008).

The significance of such movement was conveyed in a poignant manner by a symposium on Le Guin at the University of Oregon in late 2016. Younger women writers of science fiction spoke of how they came to see for the first time, with her novels, that women actually existed in the future. A transgender man recalled one of the most vertiginous sentences in The Left Hand of Darkness – “The king was pregnant” – in chronicling his own experience as a pregnant man in transition, his shivering through labor in Minneapolis rooms as icy as the halls of Karhide. “Can we make justice the most pleasurable experience that humans can have?” an African-American writer and activist from Detroit asked, evoking the anarchist utopia of Le Guin’s planet Anarres to make sense of her own city’s experiments with alternative ways of being.

Le Guin herself was present that day, listening quietly and writing busily to herself on a small pad of paper. I introduced myself during one break as an adoring fan, told her I’d just taught Changing Planes as a work of speculative anthropology, and that I’d studied anthropology in Kroeber Hall. “So you’ve been under the weight of my family for a long time,” she replied with a laugh. Somewhat frail and infirm already, she did not address the audience in that hall. And yet you could see that the alien characters and places she had conjured were already part of this one here, tangible presences that had transformed what all of us thought about the human and its fungible limits. “Beings of fiction populate the world,” Bruno Latour (2013) reminds us.

Once the symposium had ended, I sat down for a long conversation with another one of the speakers, Grace Dillon, who teaches in the Indigenous Nations Studies program at Portland State University. Anishinaabe by heritage, she had grown up on an anarchist commune in the Midwest, where a visiting bookmobile sometimes dropped off books by Le Guin. Grace had spoken earlier that day of a kind of “human Milky Way” that gathers together persons of all kinds like beads on a chain: human ancestors and descendants, but also “animal persons, plant persons, and, with science fiction, machine persons.” She found herself drawn to the kindred and expansive sense of personhood expressed in Le Guin’s novels. And this resonance helped with her own efforts to sketch the contours of “indigenous futurism,” a genre defined by Dillon’s pathbreaking anthology of Native American science fiction, Walking the Clouds (2012).

“If you are thinking of something, you are also willing it into being, it actually comes about,” Grace told me, describing the Abishinaabe idea of inaendumowiin, creative imagination. Listening to her tales, I began to see more fully how Le Guin’s fiction mattered in the world, how the passage of these stories from person to person could actually foment new ways of life.

City of Illusions, one of Le Guin’s first novels, begins as a man with yellow, cat-like eyes finds himself in the midst of an unknown settlement of forest-dwellers. You may wonder with some suspicion why this unnamed world has pine and hemlock trees, herds of sheep and cattle, expanses of a landscape the novelist calls prairie. And then you read, midway through, that there are also ancient remnants here of a time that passed some three thousand years before, that “fragments of pottery, flecks of colored glass and plastic were thick in the spongy ground around these places.” You begin to realize that you are still on this Earth, “a great lovely garden gone all to weeds and wilderness,” long past “The Age of Cities” and “the Age of War” (Le Guin 1996).

And so you continue to wander across the face of the world with this cat-eyed foreigner, meeting herdsmen who land their raw beef repasts with hand-lasers, island natives “entirely absorbed in sailing, swimming and sex,” and a telepathic race masquerading as demons to lord over them all. What is it to gaze at them through the peculiar yellow orbs of this stranger? Their humanity is vexing, yes, these peoples of an Earth yet to come, but make no mistake, what is truly at stake here are the horizons of our own perception now.

Fare thee well, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. We’ll be looking out for you in some other galaxy somewhere. You’ll have mastered the language there already, no doubt, and might just offer to show us around with some of your singular kindness and grace.


The letters may be found in the Ursula K. Le Guin Papers, Correspondence; Subseries D. Call 270, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Library. The ones cited here are from Box 16, Folder 15; Box 16, Folder 5; and Box 45, Folder 16, respectively.

Baker-Cristales, Beth. “Poiesis of Possibility: The Ethnographic Sensibilities of Ursula K. Le Guin.” Anthropology and Humanism 37 (1): 15-26, 2012.

Dillon, Grace. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Freedman, Carl, editor. Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.

Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: Avon, 1974.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Putnam, 1979.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Worlds of Exile and Illusion. New York: Orb, 1996.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Telling. New York: Harcourt, 2000.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala, 2004.

Wagner, Roy. The Invention of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology. Edited and translated by Peter Skafish. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014.

Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include, most recently, Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing (2017), edited with Stuart McLean. This writing is excerpted from A Possible Anthropology: Three Essays on Method, forthcoming from Duke University Press in 2019.

One Reply to “Ursula K. Le Guin, Interplanetary Anthropologist”