[This is] a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to â€œbeing real.â€ Yet it is a subversive statement. . . . Fantasy not only asks â€˜What if things didnâ€™t go on just as they do?â€™ but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwiseâ€”thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are.
Le Guin has always been fascinated by the subversive possibility of imaginative writing, and the central conceits of her two best-known series explore it. The Hainish Cycle is a series of stand-alone novels set in the same universe, on separate planets where civilization has developed in radically different ways. Humans can travel between these planets, but they cannot travel faster than light, and so the expenditure of time is prohibitive; but they remain connected through Le Guinâ€™s signature SF invention, the â€œansible.â€ The ansible is a communication device allowing near instant communication between any two points. People on separate worlds who could never cross the vast distances between them in the span of a single life can still communicate. This imaginary technology poses an interesting thought experiment. If two people can only trade information, what effect can they have on each otherâ€™s lives? The ansible is an obvious metaphor for writing itself.
The Earthsea Cycle, by contrast, is a series of fantasy novels and short stories set in a universe where anything spoken in Old Speechâ€”a language in which everything has a secret, true nameâ€”comes to pass. Again the central conceit appears to reflect the question of writing itself, and how it can affect the world. The condition for using Old Speechâ€”that you must find out a thingâ€™s true nameâ€”suggests a condition for good writing: you must describe the world accurately. How could a writer of science fiction and fantasy suggest such a thing?
Le Guin has stated that she thinks of genre as a formal constraint, the way a writer of sonnets might treat the fourteen lines as a limitation that allows for otherwise impossible effects. A book like The Left Hand of DarknessÂ checks all the genre boxesâ€”an alien world, thrilling events, political machinationsâ€”but at the same time, it invites us to reflect on the role of sex Â in everyday life and everyday aggression, as we inhabit the point of view of a male stranger on a hermaphroditic world. Often Le Guinâ€™s protagonists are strangers exposed to new societies, and their visions of otherness become vehicles for the readerâ€™s self-reflection, highlighting the strangenesses in our own world that weâ€™ve become too accustomed to to notice.Â For Le Guin, imaginative fiction is not â€œescapistâ€ in the usual, derogatory sense, but in a different, subversive sense: â€œThe direction of escape is toward freedom,â€ she notes. â€œSo what is â€˜escapismâ€™ an accusation of?â€
Now, at 87, Le Guin has stopped writing fiction. She continues to blog, and she has found ways to pursue a similar subversive mission in the new medium.
On the blog, Le Guinâ€™s scope is somewhat narrower. A running theme is the life of her cat, Pard. Between each of No Time to Spareâ€™s four topical sections are essays entitled â€œAnnals of Pard.â€ Devoting such time and interest to the observation of a cat might seem to represent the commonest impulses both of internet culture and old age; but, as always, Le Guin wades into her new genre to deepen and expand it. When Pard brings her a living mouse to and drops it on her bed in the night, her solution is to lock them together in the kitchen until the mouse disappears (whether through elusion or ingestion, she doesnâ€™t know). She reflects on the ethical implications and possible reasons for her resistance to intervention: