Category Archives: Ursula K Le Guin

My word for Word for World is Forest is not forest

I have already established elsewhere (well, HERE) that Ursula K. Le Guin is god, for a variety of reasons. Now, since she is not the Christian god or any of that shit she is not by definition infallible. Which is on the one hand a good thing, cause how could you argue against an author and one of her works if she’d be an infallible god? On the other hand it’s not such a good thing, because it means that UKLG’s works can also sometimes be less than stellarly awesome (gasp! I know…). And as of right now, I’d like to discuss one of those less than stellarly awesome works of hers: The Word for World is Forest.

via edisbooklighthouse.blogspot.com

So, long before that obscure Avatar rip-off Le Guin came up with the idea of a very forest-y planet herself, one that is inhabited by a humanoid species totally in tune with their environment and exploited by a humanoid species originating from our beloved planet Earth (sometimes also written Erth, at least in random Futurama episodes, but I digress (of course)). Those exploiting dudes are of course mainly the military types who do not favor communicating with the autochthonous population. respecting their wishes and livelihood. So yes, in principle, The Word for World is Forest presents the premise of the Avatar story, only that instead of some metal they need timber for Earth (cause there is none left) and the humanoids aren’t big blue cats, but little green-furred people who are absolutely non-violent. And there is no ridiculously unbelievable love-story. Ermh, well, not that kind, at least.

via sfmistressworks.wordpress.com

So, to get the shiz right out of the way, I should clarify why I think that this novella (novel, novelette, you choose it…though this story set in her Hainish universe won the HUGO Award for best novella in 1974) is sub-par compared to Le Guin’s other works. The primary reason being: it’s heavy-handed. It is well written, beautiful prose, there are interesting ideas, it is a fairly complex set-up, but it is nevertheless heavy-handed. And what makes Le Guin so awesome to read usually is her general un-heavy-handed-ness. So, there.
Every moral tale could of course be accused of heavy-handed-ness. But if your main antagonist (Davidson in this case) is so clearly a dumb-ass villain who does not listen to others and therefore wreaks havoc upon everyone’s heads and asses and ultimately upon himself, the moral tale becomes a little stale. The military dudes are asses, those who work with them might not be, but are corrupted by the structures, and the autochthonous population living in harmony with their environment (comprised mainly of forest, which is why their word for their world is the same as the word for forest) is totally super-awesome. That doesn’t read like complex characterisations and innovative storytelling precisely because it isn’t. And even though I wasn’t born in 1972 when the thing was published my guess is that even then a plot-progression of that kind felt like old news (despite then being a very current comment on the war in Vietnam). Oh, Ursula.

via goodreads.com

Well, mostly “Oh, Ursula” because Le Guin is such a terrific writer. And since she is, she can’t help but bring glimpses of awesome even in moments of mediocrity.
The biggest piece of awesome in this novel is of course the Athsheanean society. Not only because they look distinctly different from humanoids such as us since they are smaller and have green fur all over, but also because Le Guin, with a few well placed strokes, creates the impression of a fully formed society with very distinct patterns of human interaction. Not only are they non-violent in the sense of they don’t kill each other, but they have established a social system that channels anger, envy, and the like into singing contests and permits a maximum of physical interaction that is not sexually charged and thus not avoided but embraced as a means of communication. Furthermore Le Guin tries to establish interesting ideas on gender roles without hammering home a female utopia void of realistic inequalities and imbalances. She writes about a political system that is highly decentralized and offers most of the organizational power within the social structures to the women in society. However, Athshean men still have their Men’s Lodges, and since it’s them who claim to be the great philosophers (and Dreamers) of Athsheanean society, androcentric structures that favour male dominance are still discernible, even if decidedly less pronounced than in our society, but therefore still relatable to readers of our day and age who encounter androcentric structures and sexist practices on a daily basis.

(c) Eileen Gunn, via ursulakleguin.com

Then there is another thing I think is awesome about The Word for World is Forest, even though this is precisely why I am conflicted about it. Captain Davidson and his portrayal are on the one hand extremely stereotypical and his single-mindedness and unwillingness to question himself are a tad too convenient for getting across The Message. On the other it is an interesting instance of an author trying to create a character and his mindset in a way that helps us (who do not think like that) to understand or at least get and idea of why he does the things he does.
And she draws the character well. The more time we spend in his head, the more we realise how little his own inconsistencies and incongruence can become apparent to himself, since he subscribed to such an extreme method of compartmentalization, that basically everything relates back to him accepting things because he thinks of them as god-given (or rather genetetically pre-set) and therefore unchangeable. That he changes his own rules set up for others all the time cannot bother him, because he cannot see it. Athsheans are horrible because they do not adhere to Terra human rules, and Terra human rules are awesome because they are so functional, but he has to break Terra human rules in order to work for the greater good, otherwise Athsheans would break Terra human rules… etc. It’s a fascinating read to follow the circular (non-) logic of Captain Davidson and a successful undertaking in my opinion, however, I’m just not sure that that’s the way it is. As with the general plot heavy-handed-ness, this characterisation works well in terms of making it easier for me as a liberal (in the socio-political sense) reader to get an idea of why he does what he does and it resonates with stuff I’ve read and heard about extremists and terrorists and dictators and other shitheads in how they structure their worldview and justify what they do by applying standards they deny others. But exactly because it reads so well and seems a reasonable enough explanation it feels a little false, because if another liberal writes a character like that and liberal me reads it and finds it plausible, the real conservative wacko-mindset is totally out of the picture and only an imagined feature that bends to “our” liberal will. It’s kinda like saying “all homophobes are just closeted homosexuals” which seems to makes sense and sounds reassuring but which ultimately isn’t true (I think) and just picks out the general idea of homophobes having issues with sexuality (either other people’s and/or their own) and exaggerates that point. It makes for a neat little explanation from an outside point of view, but it nevertheless is just that, it never really amounts to the inside point of view.

via plodit.com

But there is the dilemma: I probably wouldn’t read and love Le Guin if she was some conservative dumbfuck (and if you are a conservative reading this, please reconsider your political stance before asking me to reconsider my statement) and actually thought like that. It might still just be the same. But because she is exactly not that I recognize that she sets out to make sense of the actions of people whose actions actually don’t make much sense. I applaud that, but at the same time it creates this disbelief-gap for me, cause I know she doesn’t think like that, and reading the thought of such a character knowing she doesn’t think like that makes me question the overall plausibility of that characterisation. And all of that is of course true for basically ever yother character in every other novel, however, since we are struggling with the issue of heavy-handed-ness of this highly moralistic tale this conservative-wacko-inside-view feels forced and cheap (and too convenient), despite its efforts and even despite is actual probability.

In conclusion I can just repeat that this is definitely not Ursula K. Le Guin’s strongest work. However, it is Le Guin, so it is still strong work compared to basically everything else. Ergo: Go read it!

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Ursula K. Le Guin kills another revolutionary – literally

The level of lameness I reach when trying to come up with pun-y headlines… You’re welcome! Of course the above statement is just to lure you in to another Le Guin centered review on this blog, but this time we won’t go for a novel, instead we’ll have a look at her short story The Day Before the Revolution, which is connected to her novel The Dispossessed which was published in the same year (1974) and is set in part on the same planet, cause both of the stories are connected to her larger Hainish-Universe. In case you have no clue what I am talking about: shame on you! So much for not alienating readers. (But really, it’s just a short short story. Go pick it up, read it real quick, and come back here for the review! See you in a sec!)

via goodreads.com

In The Day Before The Revolution (which won a Nebula Award in 74 for Best Short Story) we meet up with Laia Asieo Odo, an elderly woman that we previously encountered as a historical figure in The Dispossessed. Odonians, as they call themselves, derive their ideological foundation from the writings of Odo, who is referred to here in this story – unsurprisingly if you think about it, which we of course did not – as Laia, since it is her given name. And good old Ms Odo has a history of writing influential works on anarchism and anarchist society, since she’s been fighting for ending the oppression of those belonging to the working class (and underclass) on the planet of Urras. Her ideas and ideals, written down partially in prison where she spent years of her life have a distinctively communist touch to me (and I guess others), but it is anarchism, because it is an ideology that rejects any form of state, rule, authority, and hierarchies. In The Dispossessed we see that the ideal and the reality may very well clash, but in this story there she is: the woman who thought it all through, wrote it down, started revolutions and became an icon. She lives in a community-organized house (which used to be a bank, something that gives her satisfaction) and deals with age – remarking also, that the older she gets the less easy she finds it to adhere to all the principles and ideals she’s written about so famously.

via wikipedia.org

We follow her through one day. She wakes up and gets up, dresses, has breakfast, reads, remembers, contemplates, meets guests and goes out in the streets on a sudden urge, and ultimately returns, exhausted.
Because The Dispossessed is such a thoroughly political and also theoretical novel in many ways, it is fascinating to witness this other take on Urras and anarchism (I read it before The Dispossessed which didn’t diminish neither novel nor story, it rather enriched my reading of the novel), where we meet the principal thinker of the movement and encounter a brief narrative about old age. How Laia struggles with her own body, its faltering functionality, and also its ugliness, because she does not find herself pretty or attractive anymore. But she is no fool: Her appetite for sex is nothing she denies. In fact she’d love to have her young and attractive secretary look at her the way he’d look at an attractive woman these days, and finds her wishes to be in vain.
Living where she lives and meeting whom she meets she also sees the discrepancy between her writings, the celebration of her principles, and how reality plays out differently. Even though she spoke out against hierarchies and authority, people see her as an icon and treat her as one. And even though she perceives of this ideological gap she is also quite happy with the comfort it provides her with in her old age.

via amazon.com

The Day Before The Revolution is first and foremost a story about old age and the end of one’s own life. Laia/Odo has lived her life fully, we could say. She has known oppression and a precarious existence, but she has also known resistance, protest, further repression and the strength to survive it. And she has known love. And loss, and grief. In between the events of the day we witness  there are brief flashes of memory, when she remembers her time in prison and her deceased husband Taviri. And even though these glimpses are short, they are profound, bittersweet and melancholic, but also realistic. What is over is over, so what can you do? Le Guin is a supberb writer in many ways. Big shocking confession right here: I read it in German, not in English, translated by Gisela Stege. While I love Le Guin’s prose in the original, this translation reads beautifully and doesn’t diminish the effect. Le Guin’s art shines through: she is able to draw a character with a few lines and strokes, but round and full, because Laia here is believable in her insecurity and confidence, in her longing and acceptance, in her stubbornness and open mind.
Having made it back to the house she walks up to her room, slowly, dead tired, feeling the stroke coming. She will not survive this night. But we already know that the next day all hell will break lose, the revolution based on her influential thoughts will take off and lead to the settlement of another planet. But you don’t need to know about your own future glory to be a grand person.

Still haven’t read it? You gotta be kiddin’ me! Do so now!

Whitewashing in the movie adaptations of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea

Way to break with the fluff and glitz of my posts up until now with that headline, huh?
Well, I called this blog “Me, all over the place” because I wanted to talk about things that run through my head. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those things people, and so is racism.
Initially I intended to post a whole essay that I wrote on this topic for university. I think it’s good and I think it’s relevant, but I am also apprehensive, because I’m not sure if I shouldn’t be looking for other ways of publication, plus, I ultimately figured that probably hardly anyone would flip through 31 pages of academic rambling and a lot more people would settle for running with me through my markedly less academic rant here.

Before I start off, let’s all remember that it is me, a white, German man writing this. I say this to remind everyone that one of the reasons people might even bother to read it is because I am in the privileged position that people assume I have an objective approach to the subject, because it’d affect me only peripherally. That’s not true, it affects me as much as anyone else (though in a way that puts me in a position of white-western privilege) and there is no way that people approach the subject a hundred percent objective in the first place. Also, I try to not be insensitive about terms and identities but out of sheer ignorance stemming from lack of experience it might happen. I wish for you to point it out to me and would like to apologize in advance.

I will use the terms “race” and “racial background” in this essay although I am aware that there are no differing human “races”. Nevertheless the term refers to a powerful concept in that it functions as the label for social constructions, all the while disguising these (hierarchy-producing) constructions with biologist categorization. “Race,” as a social concept refers primarily to skin-color and a variety of physical features (although the concept has further implications about “purity of blood,“ and crap like that). I welcome all respectful contributions and discussions in the comments to problematize these terms and concepts further.

© by Marian Wood Kolisch, via ursulakleguin.com

The Earthsea-series, written by the very popular Ursula K. Le Guin, consists of seven short stories, two of them published before any Earthsea novel was written, the other five all being part of the 2001 publication Tales from Earthsea, and five novels. The first three novels are called A Wizard of Earthsea (1969), The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972). Le Guin was approached by her publisher to write one or more novels targeted at an audience of young adults in the genre of fantasy. She drew upon her two short stories The Word of Unbinding (published first 1964 in the January issue of Fantastic) and The Rule of Names (published first 1964 in the April issue of Fantastic) to further explore Earthsea, the world she created for these two.
While the first three Earthsea novels soon came to be considered en par with fantasy classics such as the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia novels, they have also been criticized by feminist critics, for they feature mainly male protagonists and delegate the power to the men, while rendering mainly isolated male wizard characters as wise. This changed when Le Guin opened the second trilogy of Earthsea with the 1990 publication of Tehanu. The feminist tone of Tehanu, expressed in the focus on women’s lives in Earthsea’s society. Tales from Earthsea was published in 2001 and features the stories The Finder, Darkrose and Diamond, The Bones of the Earth, On the High Marsh and the article A Description of Earthsea. Le Guin herself intended the last story, Dragonfly, to be the link between Tehanu and The Other Wind, the last novel of Earthsea, also published in 2001.

“My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white” – Le Guin 2004

Although admittedly writing in a fantasy tradition that draws upon Nordic myths that usually accepts being white as the norm, Le Guin refused to adhere to this norm and decided for her Earthsea-series (but also for most of her other works) to establish protagonists of color.
Le Guin herself admits to didactic intentions, claiming that she expected her reading audience to be mainly white American adolescents who might have had some trouble identifying with Earthsea’s main protagonist Ged, which is why she chose to present his skin-color only after readers would already have eased themselves “into Ged’s skin” before realizing that “it wasn’t a white one” (- Le Guin 2004).
Even though we can also find somewhat problematic depictions of ethnicity (in itself a problematic term) in Earthsea that are not explicitly addressed by Ursula K. Le Guin, she acknowledges the fact that her presentation of non-white characters could be perceived as being problematic. She states that she is “intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice,” and that she knows that this can be considered to constitute “an act of extreme arrogance” (- Le Guin 2004).

Earthsea, anime and racial representation

The Japanese film adaptation of Earthsea was produced by Studio Ghibli, famous throughout the World for Oscar-winning movies such as Spirited Away and nominees like Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. All of these were directed by Miyazaki Hayao, one of the Co-founders of Studio Ghibli and it was him who expressed an interest in producing and directing an animated version of the first three Earthsea novels in the early 1980s. But it was not until July 29 2006 that a movie adaptation called Gedo Senki (Ged’s War Chronicles) saw a theatrical release, later released outside Japan with the English title Tales from Earthsea. This movie however was not directed by Miyazaki Hayao due to his time restraints, being involved in the production of Howl’s Moving Castle, a fact that Ursula K. Le Guin bemoans on her official homepage, since she initially agreed to the production based on her admiration for his earlier work. Instead of Miyazaki Hayao his son Miyazaki Gorō directed the film. Gedo Senki reached the Nr. 1 position of the Japanese Box Office in its opening week and held this spot for five non-consecutive weeks. It wasn’t a big commercial success abroad and still has not been released in the U.S. due to Sci-Fi Channel still holding the rights for the Earthsea novels there.

We can often encounter human bodies that transgress their biological boundaries in anime, e.g. by incorporating technology into the body and becoming or creating a Cyborg. Susan Napier in her 2005 book “Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation” observes that

“what animation can do to the human body is one of the most interesting and provocative aspects of the medium. Anime representations of the human figure range across an extraordinary variety of types (and archetypes), implicitly promising a vast range of fictional identities for the viewer to revel in.”

It is therefore interesting to look at how the human body is represented in anime in terms of skin-color, and there is a startling observation to be made. Anime characters do not look specifically Japanese, but in fact very white-western. Most characters are white, meaning they exhibit fair skin, often with blond or light brunette hair. Susan Napier argues that these body types are neither Japanese nor Western but rather “anime-style”-bodies that display the notion of mukokuseki, being stateless, and refers to statements, that Japanese try to de-Japanize the anime characters in order to create an alternative world that serves escapist tendencies or underlines the incongruence with Japanese reality. By referring to these character-types as “postethnic” (especially with regard to dystopian fantasies of future worlds) she also points at their hybrid nature, the result of merging ethnic and racial identities within the course of time. Nevertheless many Japanese anime, even in futuristic settings, still stress Japanese cultural practices and traditions. She claims that it is this Otherness, that is neither Japanese nor Western, in relation to familiar cultural settings, that allows Japanese audiences (but to some extent also other, especially Western, audiences) to explore their identities without the constraining boundaries of realistic depiction. The anime style is considered to produce characters that work as a projection surface with features that render them human,
If we examine the characters in Gedo Senki bearing all this in mind, it is striking to see how conventional the protagonists are depicted in this cultural context of anime production. Apart from the villain Cob, who turns out to be a wizard of uncanny power, who was transformed by the evil that possesses him in his search for eternal life, all the other main characters exhibit neither surprising hair-colors nor exaggerated eyes. Their hair colors range from brown to blonde and their skin exhibits different shades of what could be called white. Even with regards to “extras”, characters that appear for only a few moments in scenes that take place in cities or villages, there are no characters who deviate from this color-scheme.
The extraordinary potential of anime in the production of human bodies that transgress at least national stereotypes and at most the human form itself is only used in Gedo Senki to render the antagonist as non-human, or beyond human. But it does in no way disrupt the patterns of perception of its viewers by introducing characters of a different racial background. Although the characters might not be Japanese, as their target audience, they nevertheless exhibit common anime-style conventions of depiction that make them easily identifiable and easily consumable – even if the movie is watched in so-called Western nations.
It seems that in the process of adaptation, the dealing with the issue of skin-color was dismissed in favor of presenting characters that were easy to identify with and believable in a setting of a somewhat medieval high-culture. And obviously the decision had been made that characters of color would not be able to be believable in this setting or achieve identification. To pick up on Ursula K. Le Guin’s critique, not only has the evil potential within human beings been externalized in the movie, but also the problematic issue of skin-color, to the extent, that it only becomes an issue external of the movie for those who are interested in it, but not within the context of the film where this issue was obviously considered to be too unsettling for an (Japanese and/or white-western) audience.
Even if the filmmakers would have kept their choice of not problematizing the issue of race and color in their movie, they still could have depicted all of the characters to be black, but they obviously chose not too. If they had, they would have been able to place characters, who are usually not considered for heroic deeds in the Japanese context, at the centre of an heroic tale and call into question not only stereotyping processes in the individual viewer, but also the foundations of power assumed and wielded in human societies.

Earthsea, U.S.-American television and whitewashing

Earthsea was picked up by the Sci Fi Channel and produced as a miniseries consisting of two parts that run each for approximately one and a half hours. Sci Fi Channel (by now named SyFy Channel) is a cable channel in the U.S. that, as the name already suggests, airs mainly series and movies in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Le Guin does not express any delight in seeing the reworking of her material in the way it happened in the miniseries, explaining that she feels unable to make any sense of the narrative the way it is presented now in the films and calls the overall product a “generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence” (- Le Guin 2004). She makes clear that she had not been involved in the writing or the production process, although she had wished to and communicated this wish to the producers. She claims to have been infuriated by comments made by one of the film’s producers, when he talked about what her intent with the books had been and how the production would have been faithful to that intent. She equates the situation with imagining The Lord of Rings ending with Frodo putting on the Ring and ruling happily ever after in the movie versions and how the producers could have stated that they were just trying to be faithful to Tolkien’s intentions.

One of the miniseries producers, Robert Halmi, stated in an interview that

Legend of Earthsea, the miniseries, was cast completely colorblind, as any of my productions have been. We searched for the right actors for the roles and brought in diversity to the cast as a result. There was no decision to make Ged blond and pale-skinned.”

Halmi’s exclamation is very problematic, in that it does not take structural racism within society, culturally ingrained prejudices and Hollywood conventions, supposedly based on market logic, into account. He claims that diversity of the cast is a result of the principle of “color-blindness”, yet fails to elaborate in how far diversity can be observed in a film that features almost exclusively white actors, with only one central character being black (and few others of the same skin-color) and another being “somewhat” Asian-American. Diversity in the sense of a multicolored cast could also have been achieved by sticking to the novels’ color-scheme. But this sort of diversity was obviously dismissed for white protagonists that fit well into the color-scheme of white-western prime-time television series and action movies.
The miniseries tries to produce an image of multiraciality by featuring Danny Glover in the role of mentoring wizard Ogion. But as Ursula K. Le Guin expressed in her critique of the films, his skin-color seems arbitrary and odd, raising questions as to where his character comes from, living among villagers and seemingly a whole people that is exclusively white.
This blindness to one’s own color can then be extended to the character Ogion within the filmic narrative, where the difference in skin-color is never problematized or even addressed, neither by his character nor any of the others. He does not “cover” himself here, but passes because of his status as “white dark man”, his character being non-white but nevertheless morally incorruptible and of admirable wisdom which grants him the status as an honorary white person. Under closer scrutiny all characters of color appearing in the miniseries prove to be less a sign for a multiracial society than for ornamental use of token skin-colors in order to heighten the exotic and fantastic flavor of the narrative targeted at a white audience that seeks – much like the Japanese with the anime-style characters as mentioned above – to avoid its own national identity in a fantasy realm without really leaving the social norms and conventions that govern this national identity and space.

The unconventional rendering of Le Guins protagonists as being people of color has neither been translated into the U.S. television version nor to the Japanese anime version. Although both adaptations claim to have given thought to the issue and to have come to the conclusion that the allegedly multicolored casts in the films represented the best solution to the issue, my impression is that both production teams have dealt with the issue only to the extent that they arrived at the decision to dismiss it by eradicating most traces of being non-white in principal characters with only a few token exceptions. They abandoned the concept of presenting heroes of color, a step that would have been challenging to production and casting norms in both U.S.-American television and depiction of human bodies in Japanese anime, in favor of a seemingly safer way, that transforms racially subversive characters into white (here standing for both western-white in U.S. tradition and Japanese appearance, that nurtures an ideal appearance modeled after “western looks”) characters in order to cater to a white mass audience that is thought to be constituting the targeted markets. The sad outcome of this white-centered market logic is that it cannot give any insight into how successful a version with protagonists of color would have been – we obviously have to wait for future adaptations that decide to take more courageous steps.

“Not to choose, these days, is a choice made. All fiction has ethical, political, and social weight, and sometimes the works that weigh the heaviest are those apparently fluffy or escapist fictions whose authors declare themselves ‘above politics,’ ‘just entertainers,’ and so on.” (Le Guin, quoted after Elisabeth Anne Leonard(1997): “Into Darkness Peering” – Race and Color in the Fantastic)

If you haven’t read Earthsea yet, I highly recommend you to do so!